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in the lands of gods and monsters

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New Asgard orbited the star the Midgardians called Sol. Thor watched it rise over the world as the second day upon their new world began, holding his daughter in his arms so she could bear witness to the second sunrise ever upon their planet, silently celebrating the completion of her first day of life.

Frigga waved her arms around, uncaring about the new sunrise and trying to stuff the edge of his cloak into her mouth. He laughed, plucking the fabric from her grip and speaking to her softly, “This will all be yours someday, you should treat it seriously.”

She gurgled up at him, marvellously clear-eyed, healthy, strong. Thor smiled down at her and turned aside from the sunrise. “Come, we are not the only ones who should see this.” He walked back to the area where they had slept, making their bed under a towering elm in a nest of soft grasses. The air had been warm enough through the night and the noises of the night animals and insects had been sweet music to sleep by.

He knelt by Loki, who had not stirred when Thor rose to greet the day. He had fallen almost immediately into sleep the night prior, when the day’s long celebrations finally wore to a close. He had been delirious with exhaustion when they finally curled up to slumber, murmuring something insensible before Thor managed to shush him to sleep. He lay curled on his side, darkest circles under his eyes, his arms curled up close to his chest.

Thor frowned and thought perhaps to let him sleep, but something about the way he slept set a fissure of worry through Thor’s bones. Perhaps he had grown too used to worrying over Loki in the past weeks.

He reached out and shook Loki’s shoulder. Loki did not stir. Not at all. Thor’s heart stuttered and he settled Frigga down so he could put both hands on Loki. He called Loki’s name, softly and then louder, touching the skin of his face and finding it grown cold in the brief time since Thor rose.

“What’s wrong?” Heimdall asked, kneeling by Loki’s other side. A moment later, he asked, his voice strange and tense, “Is he…?”

“He lives,” Thor said, the weak flutter of Loki’s pulse against his fingers the only thing stopping his sudden alarm from growing to an overwhelming level. He swallowed. The last time Loki had refused to wake, it had taken Hela’s intervention to bring him back to the world of the living.

But the working was over. They had succeeded. Their people were returned. New Asgard spun gently through the heavens.

“I am sure he is only exhausted,” Heimdall said, but he did not lie as well as Loki, and Thor looked up at him with dread growing and expanding through his chest.

“He told me there would be a cost,” Thor said, the words dragging like glass up through his throat.

“What?” Heimdall went still, deathly so, his eyes catching the early morning light and almost reflecting it.

Thor kept his hand on Loki’s chest. It rose and fell, weakly, but provided some sign that he did yet live. Thor’s mind picked desperately at their old conversations. “He said there would be a cost. One we could pay.”

Heimdall stared at him, unblinking. He said, “Thor…”

“And he made certain that I claimed Frigga. It was all he worried about.” That thought alone sent a chill down his spine.

Breathing had grown difficult. He bent his head over, and barely heard Heimdall when he spoke, “I will go find such healers as we have.”

Thor did not look up when he rose and left. He rolled Loki onto his back, his limbs limp and his pulse barely stirring in his throat. His eyes did not move behind their shut lids. He looked a corpse already, and Thor curled fingers into his robes, bending over as thunder rumbled overhead, until he could press his forehead to Loki’s to murmur, “Do not do this to me. This is not a cost I can live with, Loki. Do not do it.”

Loki did not stir. He barely seemed to breathe.

#

Tony scowled at the swirling image of the new planet in their solar system, letting the voices of the rest of the individuals gathered in his living room wash over him. The newest sensor readings from the planet were impossible. But then, everything about the planet was impossible.

It hadn’t even existed a week ago, for one thing.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Bruce was saying, as Tony watched the slow revolution of the flat, glimmering world. “By all rights, its sudden appearance in the solar system should be dragging our orbit far off course, not to mention what it should be doing to the rest of the planets.”

“But it isn’t,” Rogers said, arms crossed over his chest and a frown set on his mouth. “Right?”

“That’s right.” Bruce nodded, adjusting the holographic interface to show where the planet floated serenely in orbit around their sun. “It doesn’t seem to be having any negative effects that we can see. So far.”

“How is that possible?” Rogers sounded almost offended by the absurdity of their current situation.

“Shouldn’t be,” Tony said, sighing and rubbing his eyes. “I can’t see any scientific explanation for how it’s happened. Strange, you got any clue?”

The magician cast him a look. “I’ve no doubt magic was utilized in the planet’s creation,” he said. “But exactly what kind of magic…” He shrugged.

“So we’ve got a new planet, just orbiting the sun, then? A new planet that we don’t really know anything about. That’s what we’re dealing with now?” Rogers looked like he needed a drink. Tony appreciated the emotion, but he’d been trying to avoid that particular crutch, of late. They could suffer through sobriety together.

“Looks like,” he said. “And we have no shitting clue what’s going on over there. Something is interfering with more in-depth scans.”

For a moment, they all stared at the glimmering world. Romanoff broke the silence, a thoughtful frown on her face, “Do you think they did it?”

Tony scoffed, “Brought back the dead? That’s not… It isn’t possible.”

She tilted her head to the side and pointed at the image of the planet. “We didn’t think that was possible a week ago.”

He couldn’t build an argument to counter that, no matter how mad it sounded. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, the only way to find out it is to go over there and take a look. But I don’t even have a prototype that can cross that much empty space. Not one that will be ready in a reasonable amount of time, anyway. Strange, you said you might be able to get us there?”

The magician was already shaking his head. “No, my spells falter, disrupted before I can complete them every time I attempt them. Whatever is interfering with your technology is blocking my efforts, as well.”

Tony frowned. “Really, even with your fancy little Stone back?” There’d been no little contention about leaving one of the Infinity Stones in the guardianship of a single person. Strange’s assertion that his order had managed to protect it well enough for long ages and that, incidentally, they had no authority to deny him the damn thing, had won the day months ago.

The other Stones were tucked away, secure and hidden, while arguments continued endlessly about what was to be done with them. They couldn’t be destroyed, as near as any of them could tell. They’d be found if they were hidden. And keeping them all on one planet seemed like a big mistake, but throwing them to the winds felt…

Reckless.

Strange closed his eyes and drew in a bracing breath. “Even with the Eye of Agamotto, yes.”

“Great,” Rogers said. “Options?”

Tony frowned at the impossible world. He wondered, for a moment, what would have happened if General Ross had never found out exactly what was going on in his home. If they’d already know what was going on in the planet.

He shook those thoughts away with a grimace. Bad enough that he couldn’t quite stop seeing Thor’s expression when he’d walked into the room to discover that little tableau, the horror and naked rage in his expression. He wasn’t sure, still, that Thor wouldn’t have killed him, if Loki hadn’t whispered sleep into his head and dropped him.

Sometimes, he wondered if it would have been better for them all if he’d never stepped in front of Loki, if he’d just let General Ross proceed with his plans. In the moment, he hadn’t been able to manage it, not even knowing what Loki had done, what a threat he could be.

There was something about standing by while people pointed guns at someone who looked obviously pregnant.

He ground his teeth together and sighed. “Alright. Look, we need to get over there and find out what’s going on. And I know someone who might be willing to give us a ride. It just might take them a few days to get here.”

#

On the morning of the fourth day, a hunting party brought down a great stag, the first animal hunted to feed the hungry on New Asgard.

Thor knew what they had planned, but knew not that they succeeded until a chill air blew across their busy clearing, powerful enough to blow out some of the cook fires, to rattle the trees. The Valkyries around camp came to attention, and Thor reached for his axe, meeting Heimdall’s eyes across the clearing and jerking in a breath when Heimdall’s eyes widened and refocused over his shoulder.

He turned carefully, holding Frigga to his chest, and said, to the woman standing at his back, “Hela.”

“Brother,” she said, smiling her cold smile. Her gaze shifted to Frigga. “Niece. What is her name?”

Thor watched her, his pulse beating uncomfortably fast in his skin. She did not seem angry, or threatening at the moment. “We call her Frigga,” he said.

Hela’s gaze narrowed, her mouth pressing thinner before she said, “I would have liked to see Mother once more.”

Thor could think of nothing to say to that. He felt his people hurrying away, seeking safer ground. The Valkyries remained and Heimdall, drifting towards the royal chambers, such as they currently were. “I expected to see you earlier,” he said, finally.

She shrugged, elegant in the movement. “I was curious to see how the work went,” she said. “But nothing had died here, yet. I had no way to visit. I do love what you’ve done with the place.” she drew in a deep breath, some serenity finding her expression, before she tilted her head to the side and asked, “Where is the architect of this little project, anyway?”

“Resting,” Thor said, his mind hurtling along desperate paths even as he tasted the lie of the words. Whatever Loki was doing, it did not feel restful. He tossed and turned across the blankets, his skin alternately as cold as ice and rising to a fever. The strange illness would not break, and he looked worse with each day that passed, not better. The wounds on his flesh, set there by the ritual, refused to close, continuing to bleed even days later.

“Mm,” Hela said, nodding. “Life cannot be bought without life. I really expected that he would be the one to allow me into this new world, not some stag. But he fights.”

“He’s dying?” She gave him a deeply unimpressed look. “How do I help him?”

She sighed, shaking her head. “What makes you think you can?” She tilted her head to the side. “Or that I would tell you how, if I knew? The warmth of your welcome is not earning you any favors, brother.”

He had known she would come, and should have planned better. In his imaginings, he’d been sure that Loki would be conscious to help when she appeared. He would just have to manage, somehow. He had a vague plan about how to handle her, disrupted now by the hot worry in his gut. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve been rude.” He walked towards the apple tree at the edge of the meadow. “You must be hungry,” he said, plucking an apple from the branches and offering it out.

She took it after a moment, turning it this way and that in her hands, examining the shine of its skin. “You know,” she said, “Idunn burned the orchards before I could taste even one bite.” She shifted her expression to a pout. “That really hurt my feelings.”

“I can imagine,” Thor said, with a grimace, for he had not found Idunn among the survivors and did not like to think what Hela had done to her. The distraction of considering it would not help him now, in any case.

Her fingers gripped the apple hard enough to dent the skin before she mastered herself. She frowned at him fiercely. “You offer me this, but you burned Asgard-That-Was to ash. Just to spite me.”

He met her expression. “You killed half the populace first.”

She frowned, but shrugged, as though accepting the truth of his statement. Her gaze returned to the assessment of all angles of the apple. “This is a trap,” she said, slowly. “Some kind of trick to force me out? Or make me help our brother?” She raised an eyebrow. “I am grown strong once more, you know.” He did not doubt the truth of her words. She radiated a deep kind of still energy, something he did not recognize from their previous encounters, but that set his bones to vibrating, very faintly.

He did not know if he could beat her. Not now. Not even with the Valkyries spread around the clearing, not with Heimdall close at hand. Not with Frigga in his arms and Loki lost to his needed rest.

Death bested all sooner or later, after all. But perhaps they did not need to fight.

“No,” he said, bending to lift the ladle by the spring and filling it with cold, clear water. “We’re all starting anew here.” He did not realize how true the words felt until he spoke them. He continued, feeling his way through the statement as he went. “We’re all getting a chance to begin again. You helped build this world, sister.” That title felt strange on his mouth.

“I helped build Odin’s empire, too,” she said, sour. “And he shut me away.”

Fixing the mistakes his father had made during the long course of his life was not Thor’s preferred way to pass the day. He drew in a breath. “But he is dead now,” he said. “And you are free. You have had revenge. The empire built on your deeds is gone. You choose what happens now.” He held out the ladle.

For a moment, she did not move at all. And then she looked up, determination flashing across her eyes as she raised the apple and took a bite. She barely chewed before swallowing, taking the ladle, and draining it. A cloak hung in the tree, shed by one of the Aesir as they went about their day, and he took it, feeling her stiffen as he placed it over her shoulders.

“There,” he said, drawing back slowly, so as not to startle her. “Welcome home.”

She stared, her eyes wide as the apple tumbled from her fingers. She gripped at both edges of the cloak, drawing it together, and then, without another word, disappeared.

Thor exhaled, his heart racing as though he had just finished a pitched battle, while around him the Valkyries exclaimed and set to looking for her. He offered Heimdall a thin smile as the man approached. “Where did she go?” Thor asked.

Heimdall clapping his shoulder. “To think,” he said, and would say no more about it.

#

“I’m so glad to be able to speak with you, Mr. Stark.” The woman across from Tony smiled warmly. He didn’t recognize her and made a note to look her up after their meeting ended, counting on Friday to gather the necessary biometric information.

“You said it was important, Ms. Sykes.” He’d refused the meeting all four times she’d requested it. He had so much to prepare for with the trip to the new planet. The Guardians of the Galaxy had agreed to give them a lift - for a price - and he expected them within the next few days. He needed to pack and to make sure everyone else who’d insisted on accompanying them - the list kept getting longer - was ready to go. But she’d shown up at his front door and he could respect that kind of dedication.

“It is,” she said, nodding. Her perfectly coiffed blond hair did not shift.

“Can I get you a drink?”

“That’s not necessary,” she said, following him into one of the meeting rooms on the first floor, which had avoided most of the damage caused by Thor’s abrupt departure from the planet. She sat and crossed her legs. He leaned against a chair across from her, and sighed. There was grease on his hands and a billion numbers swirling in his head.

“Alright, Ms. Sykes. What is it, exactly, that you think I can do for you?”

“It’s not for me,” she said. “Or even for the people I’m here to represent. It’s for the safety of the planet.”

He was beginning to wish he’d never let her in. No conversation that dug into the safety of the planet ever ended well for him. He sighed. “I think you better just tell me exactly what you want.”

“Fair enough,” she said. “I’m here to talk to you about the alien planet that appeared in our solar system. My clients have reason to believe that you have the means to travel to the planet and that, in fact, you plan to make a trip soon.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Those are some big assumptions.”

She shrugged, her smile unwavering. “We can pretend like they are, if it makes you feel better,” she said. “We can also… assume that my clients are very concerned about the exact plans of the alien lifeforms that call themselves Thor and Loki.”

Tony had his own concerns about their plans, but something about the way she said it made the hair on his neck stand up. He tapped his fingers on his arms, wishing for a drink, or, even better, for Pepper to walk through the door to give him an excuse to send Ms. Sykes away. He said, “Let’s assume that’s true. Should I also assume that they’d really like me to go check things out and report back?”

Her smile didn’t reach her eyes at all. “That would be a safe assumption,” she said.

“Good to know I’m on the right track.” Tony drew a breath and held it for a moment. “And who, exactly, would we be making all these assumptions about?”

“You’ve heard of the United Defense Force?” she didn’t say it like a question, and Tony stiffened.

“Oh.” He scowled. “You mean the guys that scooped up the Infinity Stones?”

“Took the Stones for safekeeping,” she said, her calm never wavering. “We couldn’t very well just leave them lying around, though we understand you are interested in studying them. We would be amenable to allowing you such an option.”

Tony stared at her. “If I went over to Asgard Land and told you what was going on?”

She stared back. He was beginning to think she didn’t blink. “If you’d like to look at it that way. We just want some information, so we can make an informed risk assessment. We think you have the best chance of providing that information.”

Tony watched her. “And what are you planning to do if you don’t like the risk levels I bring back? I hear Thor and Loki showed up and took out Thanos while the rest of us were getting curb stomped. You remember him? Big purple guy? Messed up chin? Galaxy’s ugliest glove? Wanted to snap half of us out of existence?”

“We are well aware of their actions against the Mad Titan, yes,” she said, that smile still refusing to waver. “And rest assured that we have been taking steps to increase the Earth’s defense capabilities against the dangers in the galaxy that we have recently been made aware of.”

“I’d sure be interested to know what those steps were,” Tony said, meeting her pale eyes and waiting to see if they showed any emotion, ever.

She shrugged. “I’d be happy to share the information you’re looking for,” she said. “If we are working together.”

For a moment, neither of them said a word, and then Tony sighed. “I’ll keep my eyes open when I’m there,” he said.

“That’s all we ask,” Ms. Sykes said, standing from her chair. “I know you must have a lot of work to do before your trip, so I won’t keep you longer.” She walked forward, offering out a slim card. “You can reach me at this number, when you return.”

Tony tapped the card against his leg before tossing to down to the chair. “Hey, Friday?” he said.

“I’ve already begun the background checks,” the AI said, and Tony nodded.

#

By the eighth day of their time on New Asgard, Thor feared to leave Loki’s side. They had constructed a small building around him. Some enterprising carpenter had crafted a bed. Blankets had appeared to cover him.

None of it made any difference. He alternatively burned and froze, no longer tossing and turning on the blankets. He would drink no liquid. His skin sunk against his bones and his pulse faltered and jumped. And still the wounds would not close.

Thor had traveled far, leaving his folk in desperation to bring back the best healers he could find. None of them had been able to do anything, more interested in goggling at New Asgard in any case.

Thor fell asleep on the eighth night against his own will, unable to stay conscious any longer. He did not need the finest healers in the galaxy to tell him that Loki’s time grew short. He only needed his own eyes. So he left Frigga in the care of Heimdall and her wet nurses, and knelt beside the bed, his hands wrapped around one of Loki’s, his chest empty and aching.

He held out what hope he could for a further miracle, but it was hard to believe the universe had any miracles left to give him. He slept fitfully, stalked in his dreams by cruel images, and woke with a start sometime in the darkest watches of the night.

He blinked against the darkness, unsure what had woke him, even as a chill down the back of his neck made him look up. A dark figure stood over Loki’s sickbed, slim and tall. Hela. She had a hand stretched out, over Loki’s chest, and Thor realized, belatedly, that he no longer felt Loki’s pulse moving against his fingertips.

His heart stopped beating for a moment. He surged to his feet, something moving in the space between Loki’s still chest and Hela’s outstretched hand. Her eyes blazed in the dark, and she said, over the ragged sound that escaped Thor’s throat, “A fresh start.”

She pushed her hand down, hard, the impact a slap of sound. Thor lunged for her, and on the bed Loki bowed up, eyes snapping open as he sucked in a breath, limbs seizing and shaking.

Thor cried out, forgetting Hela for the moment, grabbing for Loki instead, rolling him onto his side as he shook, yelling for healers as the sky outside shook with a sudden storm.

He felt Loki twist in his grip, fingers wrapping around one of Thor’s wrists and squeezing, hard, and he yelled louder in sweet, mad relief. Loki’s weak grip on him tightened, some of the shaking leaving his limbs as he panted, “Thor? Where…?”

“New Asgard,” Thor said, hearing the camp bustling around them, voices raised outside from his shouting. “We’re on New Asgard, you’ve been ill, but--”

“Frigga?”

“She is fine,” Thor said, drawing back enough to look upon Loki. His skin was sallow and his lips dry, his eyes still bright with malaise. “We are all fine, save you. I thought--” But he could not put into words what he had thought, the nightmare that had dogged his dreams since Loki fell into the void between worlds, doomed to repeat over and over again.

“How long?” Loki asked, after a moment, his head heavy and his body filled with trembles.

“Eight days,” Thor said, squeezing his eyes shut against the sudden wave of relief. Eight days, eight days where he had been increasingly sure that Loki would never wake, fighting desperately to keep that thought from his mind, to focus on the building efforts, to care for Frigga, to do anything besides consider that Loki could slip away.

He cupped Loki’s face, instead, and kissed his cracked lips softly, feeling the pressure as Loki’s fingers squeezed tighter around his wrist. “I am so glad you are awake,” Thor said, against his mouth, watching Loki’s dazed eyes.

“I am not sure I am,” Loki said with a pained groan, and healers flooded into the building, bustling forward with intent and purpose, moving him firmly out of the way and then out of the rooms while they spoke to one another and Loki in clear, crisp tones and got down to their work.

Thor stood under the pre-dawn sky, blood singing with sweet relief, casting Brunnhilde a smile when she came to bump her shoulder against his.

#

The Benatar landed in the front lawn with a roar of sound. It filled the morning air with the strange, sweet smell of exhaust that Tony’d gotten used to smelling during the long return flight from Titan, so many months ago.

He stood in the courtyard, watching the landing with Rogers, Romanoff, T’Challa, and Strange. They made a mismatched little group, and he wished he could swap out any one of them for Bruce, but Banner didn’t want to go into space ever again, if he could help it.

Tony couldn’t blame him for that, or, at least, he was choosing not to blame Bruce for that. He didn’t particularly want to climb back into the Benatar himself. None of his memories of traveling in deep space had been particularly pleasant.

But they had no other way to cross the distance to their new planet.

The ramp to the ship opened, and the Groot stepped down, gesturing at them. “I am Groot,” it said, sounding faintly annoyed.

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said, hefting his bag. “We’re not the ones who showed up late.”

#

“How do you feel?” Thor asked it every time he saw Loki, the memory of his slowly deteriorating condition joining all the other memories that Thor wished he could erase.

“Wonderful,” Loki said, narrowing his eyes as though expecting Thor to contend the statement. It was the first time he’d attempted to leave the medical building, yet three days after he’d awoken. His recovery progressed quickly, but he still looked overpale, his eyes too bright.

Thor kept a hand on his back, knowing he was hovering too much as they walked out into the clearing - or what had once been the clearing, anyway.

Buildings had sprung up all around them, small but well-made and laid out carefully. One of the surviving Aesir had said she played a significant role in laying out the expansions of Asgard-That-Was. She’d taken charge of deciding where they ought to place roads, wells, and buildings.

Brunnhilde watched them make their slow progress through the streets, trailing a few steps behind. “We are preparing fields for planting,” Thor said as they went, gesturing past the outskirts of the city. “We should have a harvest.”

“Good,” Loki said. “It would be a shame if we all starved after all of this.”

Thor’s fingers clenched into the back of his shirt. They reached the first apple tree, finally. Thor frowned worriedly while Loki sat, before sinking down beside him, Frigga cradled in his arms. They watched the work of the town go on for a time, quietly.

“You knew,” Thor said, finally. “Of the risk you faced.”

Loki made a face, tilting his head back against the tree. “Cf course I knew,” he said. “I’m not a fool.”

“Then why…” Thor let the words trail off. He knew Loki to be many things. Self-sacrificing had rarely been a term that would have applied.

Loki sighed. “I needed to bring them back,” he said. “And I... Have you heard of a better trade than an entire people in exchange for my much-used soul? No one else could have pulled it off.” He sounded pleased, as he always did when some scheme worked out, leaving some poor fool looking like an idiot.

“It’s not a trade I would have made,” Thor said, feeling Loki turn his head slowly to stare.

After a moment, Loki waved a hand. “Do not be overdramatic, it was--”

“I cannot do it again, Loki,” he said, shivering as a cloud blew across the sun. He stared down into the rising bones of the city.

When Loki spoke next, he picked his words more slowly, “Do what again?”

“Watch you die. I’ve done it too many times already.”

Loki leaned forward, folding his legs and cocking his head to the side. “But the Aesir--”

“I wouldn’t have traded you for them,” Thor said, feeling frustration rising within him. “Do you really not know that?” He turned, full of too much emotion, jolted unpleasantly by the surprise written across Loki’s features. He huffed a bitter laugh.

“Thor, I’m not…” He fell silent when Thor shifted, leaning across to kiss him, their daughter squirming between them. He’d ever felt more comfortable getting his thoughts across with actions over speech.

Loki blinked when he shifted back, his gaze searching. “You keep doing that,” he said, half of a question in the words.

“Would you rather I did not?” Thor asked, sudden alarm singing through his bones. Perhaps they did need to speak.

“It wasn’t a complaint,” Loki said. “Just an observation.”

“Good,” Thor said, and leaned close once more to take a longer kiss, until Loki shivered against him and made a soft, curious sound. He pulled back, then, brushing back Loki’s hair and taking in the exhaustion still etched across his face.

“We have been digging wells,” he said, clearing his throat and trying to turn his attention away from wants that could not be fulfilled until Loki further recovered.

“Oh?” Loki said, his voice throaty and distracting in a way that nearly crushed Thor’s better intentions. He was spared his weakness by Frigga stirring unhappily, voicing her complaints to the entirety of the world.

Loki lifted her without hesitation, crooning a half-heard word that silenced her cries and whispering another word that sent a stream of pale light from his throat to her stomach. Thor watched the working, raising a brow, and said, “We’ve been using a wet nurse to feed her.”

“A good idea,” Loki said, distracted with staring down into her face. “But I am well enough now to nourish her.” He stroked a finger across her face, and Thor leaned against him, watching her expression go soft and sleepy. He pressed a kiss against Loki’s hair, and helped Loki back through the city when he began yawning himself.

#

“So, Rocket says you guys all know Thor and Loki pretty well,” Quill said, after informing them that they were on their final approach to the new planet.

“Thor helped us save our planet a couple of times,” Rogers said. He’d been space-sick half the trip, but finally appeared less green around the gills.

Quill nodded, and Gamora leaned around him. She had not been with the crew when they’d all fought on Titan, or when they’d transported Tony back to Earth. He’d only known her from the wild anger her - apparently mistakenly reported - death woke in Quill and Nebula.

No one had wanted to talk about where she’d come from or her seeming return from the grave. Tony’d stopped trying to pry out information about it when Nebula gave him the kind of flat, dead-eyed stare he’d previously only associated with sharks.

Gamora asked, shaking those thoughts aside, “But not Loki?”

Tony grimaced, and Rogers said, “Our relationship with Loki is a bit more complicated.”

Tony snorted, “Yeah, if by complicated you mean he tried to conquer the planet a while back for, you know, Thanos.”

That got Nebula’s attention. “The assault on Terra?” she asked. “That was the attack he led?”

Tony leaned back in his seat to look at her. “Yeah,” he said. “You know him?”

She could display a lot of emotion for a woman more machine than flesh. Unfortunately, a lot of that emotion wasn’t recognizably human. He saw something pass across her features, quickly put aside, and she said, “I saw him a few times.”

“Sorry to interrupt the reminiscence fest back there, kiddos,” Rocket called from the front of the craft, “but we’re about to touch down and I ain’t never seen a planet quite like this before, so buckle up and hold onto your asses.”

#

Thor did not expect to hear of a ship sighting, but perhaps he should have. Of course their neighbors on Midgard would be… well, curious, at best. Perhaps frightened and angry at worst. After Stark’s betrayal he would take nothing for granted.

He left his work in the city at the first word of alarm, tracking the ship’s progress across the sky and moving towards the clearing where it seemed to be preparing to land. He recognized the craft as it cut through the air, the long, clean lines of it were forever in his memory. He owed the Guardians of the Galaxy enough to, at the least, not forget their ship. Recognition made him wave back the Valkyries as the craft settled on the ground. The warriors lowered their weapons somewhat, but remained frowning and tense as the ship's hatch opened.

Thor smiled a greeting as Rocket and his crew walked forward, and felt the expression freeze into place at who came behind them.

Thunder echoed overhead, the air filling with the sudden sharp scent of a gathering storm, and he said, "You will stay on that ship."

The group behind the Guardians, led by Stark and Rogers, paused. Electricity prickled across Thor's skin and he felt the Valkyries shifting, responding to the tension of the situation. Loki was yet back in their quickly growing city with Frigga, Thor reminded himself. Back in the city and safe.

In the ship, Stark winced, his hands raised and to the side. He said, "Look, Thor, I get that you're probably not very happy to see--"

"I left him in your care," Thor interrupted, flexing his fingers in and out. Anger prickled at him, a strange, deep kind of anger that ate up his gut instead of flaring inside him like fire.

"You did, that's--"

"And I returned to find you plotting his murder."

Stark paled, took another step forward. "No, listen, that wasn't--"

"And the murder of my child."

Lightning struck the ground, close to the ship, held back by his appreciation for the Guardians but pulled close by the anger in his bones.

"Thor--"

"And now you have come here." He shifted his gaze to Rocket. "You brought him here."

Rocket shook his head, frowning. "Buddy, they called us and said they needed a ride to check out your new digs. We didn't know anything about trying to kill anyone."

Thor nodded acceptance of the words, and Rogers took a step forward, putting a hand on Stark's arm. "Wait," he said, "what child, I thought--"

And there was a whisper of movement by Thor's side, a change in the air, a cool breeze across his overheating flesh: Loki, arriving in mid-stride, saying, "What's wrong? I saw the storm gathering from the city and--oh. We have guests."

He held Frigga in one arm, casually. There were circles yet, under his eyes. The teleportation was the first obvious magic Thor had seen him work since he awoke. Thor grabbed him, hearing thunder rumble overhead in a long, drawn out roar. Several of the Valkyries immediately closed on them, loosing weapons with a whisper of sound.

"Oh, my God," Stark said, the color running out of his face. "A baby." He took a stumbling step forward, jerking at the end of Roger’s arm and looking wide-eyed out upon the world. “And this is—is really a planet. Those are Asgardians?” His gaze landed, finally, on Loki. Thor tightened his grip. “You actually did it? You were telling the truth?”

Loki felt cold beneath Thor’s hand. He said, adjusting his hold on Frigga, “I do much of the time. Don’t look so disbelieving. You don’t expect Thor to always be covered in lightning, do you?”

Stark dragged Rogers forward a step. “But this isn’t—”

“Come no closer,” Thor ordered, the words almost buried under a roar of thunder. He did not like them on Asgardian soil. He thought to send Loki back to the city, but it was difficult enough to leave Loki and Frigga out of his sight in normal circumstances. He could not bear the thought of it with interlopers landed before them. Perhaps they had brought other ships, perhaps this was merely a distraction. “You should go.”

Rogers winced. “Look, Thor, we only wanted to—to see what was happening and to talk—”

“Then you should not have brought the man who tried to murder my family.”

Thor felt Loki’s gaze as the rumbles faded away. Their daughter seemed unbothered by the crashing thunder. But then, she would never need to fear a storm. Perhaps she knew that, even as a babe in arms.

Across from them, Stark smothered a grimace. “Look, I never—he wasn’t supposed to be hurt, we just wanted to figure out what was really going on—”

“You had him in chains. On his knees. That man said—”

“I didn’t know General Ross was going to… to threaten him, Thor. You know me.”

“I know you react poorly to fear.” Thoughts of his terrible robotic creation rose up and were pushed to the side. “I know Mjolnir did not find you worthy.”

For a moment, Stark opened and closed his mouth, and then he nodded. “You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever been comfortable with that hammer’s scale for worthiness, but fine, fair enough. But, Thor – Loki – I wouldn’t have let them—I would have stopped them. Please, just… let me explain. Let us come out. Talk to us.”

Thor stared into Stark’s face and saw… nothing there but honesty. But he saw also Loki, on his knees, his hair hanging in his face, his stomach stretched full of life. He shuddered, and Loki sighed, and said, “Your world chose poor ambassadors, but I suppose you don’t have much experience with these meetings.”

Thor cut him a look, sharp. “Loki?”

Loki shrugged. “We share their star,” he said. “We’ll have to speak with them eventually. It might as well be now. And he at least thinks he’s telling the truth.” Thor searched Loki’s expression, looking for the merest hint of unease and found none.

He frowned and nodded. “Very well. Come down. Talk.” He nodded across at Brunnhilde. “I want guards on the Midgardians at all times. And with Loki and Frigga.”

She nodded, grim-faced with purpose and clear-eyed. It was strange, still, to see her sober, but he had not seen her drink since her sisters returned. “And the Guardians?”

Thor shook his head. “I trust them,” he said, and watched the crew swagger down the ramp, followed by Rogers, Stark, and all the rest they had brought with them. He gritted his teeth, forcing away the burn of thunder, and said, “Welcome to Asgard.”

#

Tony had been on an alien world before, but Asgard was nothing like the ruin of Titan. In fact, Asgard was riotous with life, thrumming with energy in the air that he felt against his skin and in his lungs each time he breathed in.

The grass underfoot was thick and fragrant. They were surrounded by trees and flowers, with clouds drifting overhead in an atmosphere that he knew, logically, was impossible. Close by there was an apple tree, the largest he had ever seen, and a small spring. In the distance, he could see a city beginning to rise, full of buildings of gold and cream.

People – guards – moved around them, women armed with swords and wearing shining silver armor, their faces calm and still as water. Thor walked ahead of their group, leading them towards the city, and he looked… different.

He’d looked broken after Thanos fell, his eyes haunted and terribly empty with the kind of loss that Tony had kept himself awake trying not to imagine. And then he’d blown back to Earth with a pregnant brother in tow, impossible promises on his lips, and he’d looked different then, too, possessed of an almost frantic energy, transformed to white-hot anger the last time Tony saw them.

That anger was still there, barely held in check. But there was something else about the way he carried himself, the line of his back and shoulders. He did not seem to have physically grown larger, but he seemed bigger, as though he took up more of the space in the world.

And, of course, he walked beside Loki, who carried a baby, a dark haired child with pale blue eyes. Loki, who seemed calm, for perhaps the first time in Tony’s memory.

It was a lot to take in, too much all at once, but Tony’d never been able to resist a situation that promised to be too much. He looked around, trying to absorb everything, as the Guardians moved around them, keeping some distance between their groups.

They didn’t look very happy at the moment, and Tony grimaced. He should probably… do something about that if they wanted a lift back to Earth. He took a breath and approached the group, clearing his throat to ask, “So, uh, you guys ever hear of planets just coalescing into being before?”

Drax, who had spoken little on their trip, scowled down at him and said, “Ronan killed my wife and daughter. And I pledged my life to hunt him down and kill him.” He stepped away then, moving closer to the front of their group with Mantis following at his side.

“I am Groot,” the tree-man said, faintly disapproving.

Tony felt a headache building behind his eyes. “Look,” he said. “Look, you guys don’t understand our history with Loki. I wasn’t lying when I said he tried to destroy our people a few years ago.”

Quill shrugged, cutting a look towards Gamora and Nebula. “People change.”

Nebula glanced up from where she’d been frowning at the ground and said, “It wasn’t like he had a choice, anyway.”

Tony blinked at her. They’d had a lot of time to get to know one another, trapped on Titan and surrounded by the corpses of dead ships, until they could – between their group and Strange’s magic – cobble together something space-worthy. She’d never spoken much. “What do you mean?”

She stared up at him, unblinking. “It’s not my place to say what Thanos did to him.”

Tony opened his mouth – he had so many more questions – but they crested a hill then, exiting the sprawling woods to find a city laid out before them. Construction seemed to be happening everywhere, aided by magic that almost hung in the air in a golden haze. Tony stared across it, forgetting to close his jaw, and Thor turned back to gesture at them, something besides banked anger showing momentarily in his expression, something like pride and relief. “Welcome to New Asgard,” he said. “Our home.”

#

Brunnhilde found she did not particularly care of the people from Earth. To be fair to them, it would have been difficult for them to overcome the force of Thor’s reaction. He was the first person she’d trusted in hundreds of years. He’d brought her home and then rebuilt that home with Loki after it was destroyed, after the rest of them were consigned to the Grey Wastes between the worlds of the living and the dead.

And he radiated fury at the Midgardians; thunder rumbled through the otherwise clear day even as he showed them around the city. So she walked close, watching the royal family and keeping her attention on the Midgardians.

They didn’t seem particularly threatening, but neither had the Grandmaster. They’d almost killed Loki, by Thor’s account, before he could complete the working and bring them back into life and light. While he carried Frigga.

It set Brunnhilde’s teeth on edge and she cast a glance over at Ashlan, her lost love returned now to life, thinking that, had their situations been reversed, she would not be handling this as calmly as Thor seemed to be. They ended their tour at the building currently serving as palace. It was not much, not compared to the splendor of Asgard-That-Was, but it would be, someday.

Thor invited the Midgardians and the group that called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy to join them for a meal, over which they could speak. Knowing what to make of the Guardians was more difficult than the Midgardians. They were an eclectic group, chaotic, but she saw no sign of mistrust is Thor’s eyes when he gazed upon them.

Brunnhilde sat to one side of Loki; it was strange to think that he had brought them all back. She still didn’t like him very much and could not claim that she ever would, not after he’d gone digging around in her head without permission. But he’d given her life again. He’d given her Ashlan again. He’d given her Asgard again.

She could protect his life without liking him.

The palace staff delivered food, fresh and delicious. Each meal was a fresh shock, rediscovering the tastes of foods she’d long thought stolen away from her. She couldn’t help the upwelling of joy and relief, even with the tension all around, stealing a moment to smile at Ashlan, who grinned back at her as awkward small talk flowed around them, before, finally, mercifully, Thor dismissed the group to their rooms with a promise to speak with them more in the morning.

Brunnhilde followed the royal family back to their rooms. Thor wanted his family guarded, and she could at least do that much. She was pacing near the door, listening with half an ear as Loki sang to Frigga, when a knock came at the door.

Thor shot her a look, his axe at hand before he nodded at Brunnhilde. She opened the door slowly and found the red-haired woman – Agent Romanoff, Thor had called her, when introducing the group – waiting outside. Alone. “Hi,” Romanoff said, “can Thor come out to play?”

“No,” Thor said, stepping to stand at Brunnhilde’s side. “But you may come in if we need to speak. Where is your guard?”

Romanoff shrugged. “What guard?” she asked, smiling at Brunnhilde as she entered the room. Thor gestured at the chairs, and she settled in one, taking a cup when he offered her water. She smiled again when she said, “You know, it’s hard to forget you’re an alien with superpowers, even on earth, but it’s easy to forget you’re royalty. It keeps catching me by surprise.”

Thor looked over at her. A muscle in his jaw jumped briefly, and he asked, “Did you know?”

She raised one eyebrow. “About General Ross’s plan?” She shook her head. “No. Fury didn’t find out until after you blew Stark’s house to little pieces.”

“It was hardly her style,” Loki said, stepping out of Frigga’s room. “Agent Romanoff would never be so obvious. If she’d planned to kill me, I expect I would have simply not woken up during one of your trips to the Serpent of Ages.”

Romanoff inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement, her hair falling forward over her face. Thor’s expression twisted even as he looked to the side, hiding it, though the thunder outside the room gave voice to his frustration. He asked, “Why did you spare us, then? If your people were so frightened of what we might do?”

Romanoff shrugged, taking a long swallow of her drink. “I know a lie when I hear one,” she said. “Besides, I suppose I owed you a favor.” She looked over at Loki and raised an eyebrow. “Some warning would have been appreciated.”

He flashed her a smile, the first Brunnhilde had seen on his face for the day. The long absence almost startled her. She was used to seeing the sharp slide of his grin. “You’re clever,” he said, “I knew you’d figure it out on your own.”

“Figure what out?” Thor asked, looking between the two of them with a little furrow between his brows.

Loki waved a hand. “I’m sure Agent Romanoff will share the good news on her own when she’s ready. Now, it’s late and, unless you’re here on business of state—”

“I am, actually,” she said, some of the amusement leaving her features. “Well, I’m here for SHIELD and Fury. Before… General Ross’s attack you mentioned an alliance between our peoples. That Asgardians might be able to offer their support in case other cosmic entities took an interest in Earth.”

“I’m not sure we can form an alliance with a single organization on your planet,” Loki said, moving closer to Thor. “You have so many governments.”

Romanoff nodded, her expression unchanged. “We know any agreement wouldn’t exactly be official, and we’re… comfortable with that. It looks like we’re neighbors now. Knowing that we could share a defense would be very reassuring to those thinking clearly on Earth.”

“And those not thinking clearly?”

Romanoff shrugged. “Well, for a start, SHIELD could keep you informed about anything they were planning.”

“And what are they planning?”

Romanoff leaned back, taking another drink. “For the worst,” she said, crossing her legs. “Would you like specifics?”

For a moment the three of them stared at each other, Brunnhilde watching and wondering if affairs of state had always been so tense. Thor sighed, finally, and nodded. “Tell us,” he said, and listened, grim-faced and staring out the window, while she spoke of her people’s work on space-faring craft and weaponry.

“I could destroy those craft before they ever landed,” Thor said, when she finished, speaking over the low murmuring thunder in the air.

Romanoff sighed and shrugged. “Maybe. We hear they’re working with at least one of the Infinity Stones. In either case, I’d really rather we avoided that, but that’s going to require you talking to someone besides me or Fury about… all of this. We can arrange meetings, but we can’t hold them for you.”

“We understand,” Loki said, his smile there and gone. “Thor has just never enjoyed tending to matters of state.”

Something in Romanoff’s expression shifted. “I’m sure they’d be willing to speak with any head of state,” she said, weighing something behind her clear eyes. “You could go.”

Loki opened his mouth, but a louder crack of thunder stole all opportunity for speech for a moment. “No,” Thor said, on the dying edges of the sound. “Not without me. Not after Stark’s betrayal.”

There was quiet for a moment. Romanoff broke it, with a careful tilt to her head. “For what it’s worth,” she said. “I really don’t think he intended to let them kill anyone.”

“That would have been a cold comfort if they’d succeeded,” Thor said, scrubbing at his face.

“Fair enough.” Romanoff stood, then, rubbing imaginary wrinkles out of her pants. “Think about what I said. Tell me when you’re like to speak with someone else from Earth. Maybe we can even bring some diplomats here, if you’d be more comfortable with that.” She turned then, as though planning to go, and stopped, looking back at Loki to ask, with a halting little hesitation in her voice, “Why did you do it?”

He cocked his head to the side, one corner of his mouth twisting upward as he shrugged. “You broke the scepter,” he said. “I pay my debts.” She stared for a moment and nodded, then, exiting their rooms without another word.

“Watch her,” Thor said. “Closely.”

Brunnhilde gripped his shoulder as she walked by, matching his tense smile with one of her own. It reminded her again that he was changed - had been changed since she was brought back from the Grey Wastes.

He seemed older. Sad in a way she had not known him to be, even cut off from his world and thrown into the gladiator pits. Yet at peace, with a wild sort of joy that shone out of him when he gazed across his people, his daughter, Loki. And there was anger, too, deep down inside himself, where the massive edges of his rage only sometimes brushed the surface.

She had not been able to draw the reasons for these changes out of him in the days since they brought New Asgard to life. She’d assumed it was all to do with the acts of Thanos and the strain of bringing their world and people back to life.

She had a feeling, now, that a few additional reasons had walked off the spaceship and onto their world to stay for awhile.

#

Brunnhilde shut the door silently behind her, leaving Thor and Loki alone in their quarters, a breeze blowing in from the windows at their back. Somewhere, elsewhere in the palace, the others from Midgard were bedding down. Somewhere Tony Stark was close by and out of Thor’s vision.

“You’re going to wake Frigga,” Loki chided as thunder rumbled, waving a hand and dissipating his outer tunics into wisps of smoke that the wind swept aside. The skin of his arms and back did not raise into gooseflesh at the chill, stretching smooth and pale and tempting.

Thor swallowed. “She loves storms,” he said in his own defense, stepping closer and allowing his thoughts to turn from the angry paths they’d followed through the day. “Thunder puts her to sleep.”

“Mm.” Loki set aside the twinned knives he’d carried at his side through the day. His hair fell over one shoulder, ink dark against his skin, brushing the edge of a scar that kissed his collarbone. In their youth, Thor had been the one scarred by battle, careless with himself, secure in the foolish belief of the young that he was invincible.

Loki’s flesh had been smooth, unbroken by blade or arrow, though he had gathered a collection of strange marks as the cost of magical workings.

Now, they nearly matched. But where Thor had earned his scars on the field of war, Thanos and his servants had set so many of the marks into Loki’s flesh after he fell through the stars, after their foolish fight, after Thor thought him lost.

It left a sick weight in Thor’s stomach. He brushed his fingertips across Loki’s back and felt him shiver and knew it had nothing to do with the chill air. Loki did not seem to feel the cold at all anymore.

Loki glanced up at him, mouth quirking quickly when he said, “You should dress for revelry. Your friends must surely expect you to entertain--”

Loki startled, just slightly, when Thor slid a hand into his hair and leaned down to kiss him. He always startled, as though perpetually surprised that he should be being kissed. But his hands came to rest on Thor’s body, and he made a soft sound, hungry and questioning.

“They can wait,” Thor said. He left the kiss stretch between them, languid and unrushed, until the entirety of his skin tingled with it. After, he rested his forehead against Loki’s hair, panting against the pale stretch of his throat. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out, the tumultuous twist of his thoughts not distracted even by this closeness.

“Why?” Loki sounded tense, all of a sudden. All the long muscles in his back moved. His breath went shallow, and Thor grimaced, regretting that the words should have such an effect.

He scowled, drawing back and pacing over to one of the windows in their chamber. The night air felt overwarm on his skin. “Because I left you on Earth. Alone. Unprotected.”

Loki approached behind him, footfalls silent. He touched Thor’s shoulder. “You had no choice.”

“I could have placed my trust better,” Thor said, barely buried regrets surging to the surface of his mind. Scarce days had passed since his poor judgement nearly cost him New Asgard, his people, his family.... “I don’t like that he’s here.”

Loki’s touch slide down to his side. “You don’t have to like it,” he said. “But you are King now, so you must deal with it.”

Thor pressed his eyes closed, resting his forehead against the frame of the window. The thought of kingship still left the faint throb of failure against his breastbone. But he had been granted a second chance, an opportunity to do everything properly this time. To protect his people and their new home.

He said, “I do not have to deal with all of it, surely. I will not be ruling alone.”

Loki went still, the slow slide of his hand over Thor’s hip ceasing. He said, “Oh?”

“Mm.” Thor added, “We should have the wedding sooner rather than later. Make everything official.”

Loki felt as still as a glacier against his back, distracted when he said, “But… you already claimed Frigga.”

Thor turned, tired of gazing out the window when he could be gazing at Loki. He leaned against the wall, tugging Loki against his body, finding Loki’s expression full of the curiosity he wore when trying to puzzle his way through some particularly difficult piece of magic. “Of course, she is our heir. This isn’t about Frigga.”

“Some would say you had no need to wed me,” Loki said, wetting his lips, his tone even for all that his eyes had shifted to something sharp. “Some would say that New Asgard would need strong allies that could be secured with a place in your bed--”

Thor scoffed, anchoring fingers in Loki’s hair and drawing him close, interrupting the words with a hard kiss. This strange sadness would not leave the winding paths of Loki’s thoughts, it seemed, no matter how often he beat it back. It raised it’s foul face here and there, noticeable most in those fraught moments in the temple after Loki completed his great working.

Thor kept thinking he had made his feelings clear, and then Loki would turn about and express surprise that they were there, as though discovering them for the first time. “No,” he said, around the ache in his chest. “I’ll have none but you. Not to rule beside me. Not to bear my children. Not to warm my bed. Just you.”

Loki made a sound then, almost hurt, changing the angle of his mouth, the kiss turning into something hungrier, demanding, slick. He drew back after a moment, Thor drawn along by the desperate need to stay close, and panted, “I am well enough.”

Thor kissed along the sharp edge of his jaw, barely tracking their movement through the room, “Well enough for what?”

Loki disappeared from his touch all at once, falling backwards onto their bed, where he pushed up on his elbows, hair loose and skin shining. His mouth was reddened from Thor’s ministrations, his eyes dark with a heat that inflamed Thor’s blood, all at once.

He looked a feast, one Thor very much wished to glut himself on. They had not lain together - not since Loki woke from his fell illness. They had not lain together since that first time, when Loki began his working and they made their child.

Months of want surged through Thor’s blood; he heard the low roll of thunder outside as the first raindrops began battering the roof overhead, and Loki raised an eyebrow at him. “Well?” Loki asked, and Thor surged down to meet him, armor dismissed with a thought.

Loki’s hands slid across his skin, welcoming, and Thor had just settled into kissing him properly when someone decided they ought to knock upon the door. The room vibrated with the crash of thunder outside when Thor turned his face enough to yell, “What?”

“It’s…” He did not recognize the voice of the woman speaking through the door. One of the Valkyries, no doubt. “It’s the Midgardians, my Lords. They wished to know if they could speak with you.”

“I told you,” Loki said, shifting around as though intending to roll away.

Thor pushed closer, pinning him to the mattress and called back, “Tell them I am busy. I’ll speak with them tomorrow.” That task finished, he turned back to Loki and found him with a bemused, thoughtful expression on his face.

But there were yet traces of a flush in his cheeks. His mouth was still reddened. Thoughts of the Midgardians fled Thor’s mind and he ducked down, skin thrumming with delight when Loki groaned against his mouth.

They tangled together with the heady rush that had haunted Thor’s thoughts for so many months, kindling a delicious heat that burned hotter with each touch, each cry that escaped Loki’s throat, until they lay sated upon their sheets.

#

Tony paced fitfully around the room that Thor had given him. They’d all been assigned quarters, beautiful rooms built from shimmering stone. He had no idea how they’d managed to construct them in so short a time, but, then, they were on a planet that had formed over a period of weeks.

His definition of what was possible obviously needed some adjusting.

There had been food to eat and drink to enjoy earlier. It had been delicious and filling. It certainly felt real when he chewed and swallowed. There were people - people everywhere - and they seemed real as well.

They mostly seemed unhappy with him, but he supposed that was only to be expected, if they knew he’d almost snuffed out their chance for re-birth.

Everything felt solid, but he was having a hard time believing it, which led him from his room and down the hall, to Strange’s door. Strange answered almost immediately, waving Tony inside, where brightly colored lines danced through the air. Tony avoided walking through them, and asked, “Whatcha doing?”

Strange spared him a frown. “I am attempting to better understand this world.”

Tony nodded, snapping his fingers to release excess energy. “How’s that coming? Is there a world to understand, by the way?”

Strange narrowed his eyes. “You’re standing on it.”

Tony waved a hand. “Right, sure, yes, but I’ve seen some crazy things. Is this real-real? Or, I don’t know, some kind of magical projection? Are they really Thor’s people returned to life or… or holograms?”

Strange sighed and dismissed the lights in the air with a flick of his fingers. “This is no projection,” he said. “As near as I can tell, it is a living world, though with far higher levels of ambient magic than Earth. The people are… people.”

“Son of a bitch,” Tony said, letting that thought really settle, the last bulwark of doubt he’d been holding onto blowing away. Sick horror flooded in to take its place. He shoved that down, as quickly and viciously as he could. “He really did it. He really brought them all back from the dead?”

“So it appears,” Strange said.

Tony stared forward at nothing and remembered to shut his mouth after a moment. Loki’d told the truth, then. He’d gathered up all the unjustly killed Asgardians and--and Thor had believed him, had brought him to Tony for safe-keeping, and…

“Great,” Tony said. “That’s--well. Good to know. I’m going to…” He gestured at the door and didn’t wait for a proper goodbye. He needed some space. He needed not to look around and see faces that wouldn’t be around if General Ross had managed to put a bullet in Loki’s head. He activated his suit with a thought, and leapt skyward as soon as he was clear of the building.

New Asgard sprawled below him, full of glistening rivers and sprawling forests, the inhabited city a tiny dot upon the world’s surface at this point.

He turned his face away from it, out into the blackness of space, and found no comfort there, either. He avoided sleep that night, afraid of what he would dream.

#

Nebula knew little of these Asgardians. She had heard of their people over the years, here and there. Everyone had. They were a myth made flesh, in much the same way Thanos had been. Some of the stories about what they did to their enemies were nearly as shocking.

She had not been traveling with the Guardians either time they ran into the ones they called Thor and Loki. The first time, she had been in Thanos’s grip, fighting not to reveal the information that would destroy Gamora.

The second time she had been trying to undo that destruction, even if no one else seemed to see that it had occurred. It was as though they had never known her, as though they thought nothing had changed after they found her in the bottom of that pit, her body barely kept functioning with back-up systems and redundancies, programs that Thanos had not even known about, programs they had designed together, so many years ago.

They found her when she yet lived, tracking her unto the edges of the universe with a program Nebula had ever used to monitor her location. They found her and they did their best to fix the damage, to bring her mind back into order after the long period of injury and deprivation, and everyone else seemed to think it had worked.

Nebula looked at her sister - the new scar down her forehead - and knew it had not. Not completely.

She gritted her teeth and set that thought aside. It would inevitably return to gnaw at her; it always did, even on this beautiful planet that reminded her so much of her own, long-destroyed home. For now, she had no place for it, not since the group had decided they needed to pay a more private visit to their hosts.

There had been a number of tours and official proceedings since their arrival. Formalities. Everyone seemed too busy for much else. Construction continued near constantly in the city. People were out hunting, planting crops, creating the tools they would need to live on this new world.

And somehow, that led to them walking through the halls of the palace, to the rooms Rocket insisted were the royal suite, where Quill knocked after rocking back on his heels and casting them a grin over his shoulder.

The door opened on it’s own after a moment and Loki’s voice floated out, “Come in.” He stood near the middle of the rooms, pacing back and forth, the babe in his arms. A strand of shimmering light stretched from his neck to her stomach. It seemed oddly solid, in that she gripped at it and pulled it around, gurgling faintly at the activity.

Nebula had not met either Thor or Loki with the Guardians, but Loki she recognized anyway. She had seen him in Thanos’s cruel care. She knew too much about him, things she thought he was probably prefer she did not, about the way he sounded when he screamed, who he begged for when at the extremity of pain and despair.

She knew also that he was a powerful sorcerer. The man they had brought from Earth, the one who knew magics, spoke of little else during their trip. And she had heard that his working had crafted the world they stood upon and brought even the dead back to life.

She needed to speak with him, if he were even half as strong as the others said. But privately.

“She was hungry,” he said, apparently in explanation, waving a hand and dispelling the tether of light. Nebula shook her thoughts away. He smiled at them, then, fast and fleeting, and said, “What did you need?”

“Oh, we just wanted to say hi,” Quill said, strolling around the room and eyeing everything he saw. The rest of the group flowed in behind, spreading through the room like random particles. Nebula remained by the door, crossing her arms and leaning against the wall. She was not entirely sure why they were still here, on this next-to-useless taxi trip. “See how things were going. Ask if you were going to kill our new clients, or what.”

One side of Loki’s mouth curled. He said, “I have no intention of killing them.”

Quill bobbed his head. “Cool, cool. Kind of seems like Thor might, though.”

Loki snorted. “He won’t. Not unless they attempt to injure Frigga again.”

“I knew there was but one child,” Drax said then, coming around the couch with a deeply satisfied look on his face. “Did I not say there would be a single child?”

Rocket waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “You called it, you’re some kind of baby psychic, we know.”

“I said also it would be a girl,” Drax continued, coming to a stop in front of Loki. “You carried high. May I have your permission to hold her?”

For a moment, Loki blinked up at the large man, but only for a second, and then he flashed another of those fast smiles. “If you wish. Support her head--”

He trailed off as Drax took the infant, cradling her in a manner that spoke of long practice. Something in Drax crumpled; he visibly sagged, holding the child close and stroking his fingers across her soft hair as she gurgled incomprehensibly. Nebula smelled the salt on the air when he began to weep.

“I am Groot?” the Groot asked, drifting closer, and Drax shook his head.

“I remember when my daughter was this size,” he said, quietly. Mantis stepped up beside him, resting her hand on his arm and leaning her head against his shoulder. “Make sure you protect her.”

“I will,” Loki said, his head tilted to the side.

Drax nodded, as though satisfied, and said, through his ignored tears, “And if Stark tries to harm her again, I will help Thor kill him.” They spoke further, but Nebula had difficulty following the conversation, all of it filtering through to secondary auditory processing, where she could review it later if necessary.

She was preoccupied with watching Gamora, who stood near the couch, staring out the window and saying nothing, wearing no expression on her face at all.

#

Thor fought to keep the thunder quiet as he led the Avengers on a brief excursion into the area around the new city. He did not know how much more they wished to see, or how much longer they desired to stay. It seemed up to him to set a limit to how much information they could gather, how long they could wander through his home, setting his nerves on edge.

At least he could keep an eye on Stark when he was showing the man around.

“So,” Rogers asked, on their way back to the city as the day drew to an end, “so, what happens next here? I’ve never seen a planet built before.”

Thor shrugged. “The construction of the planet is completed. We will finish rebuilding, I suppose. Much was lost with Asgard-That-Was, but many fine craftspeople survived.”

Rogers nodded. “That’s--good. So you’re just going to be… building?”

“For some time, yes.” There was so much work set before them, a bittersweet labor to rebuild their world that would take an immense amount of time, even with the abilities of the Aesir. He set those thoughts aside, and smiled.

“Of course, we will take some time for the wedding.” He wanted it accomplished sooner, rather than later. He frowned, thinking over all the many tasks arrayed before him. “You should return for it,” he said, distracted. “We would, of course, invite all of you. Perhaps you should return to Midgard and collect any of the others that would wish to attend.”

“Wedding,” Rogers asked, his expression going suddenly awkward. “What wedding?”

“Mine,” Thor said, smiling with honest happiness. He hoped that the official binding of a marriage would sooth whatever hurt thing still lived within Loki’s mind, that legality might be a balm where sweet words could not reach.

Rogers began, “Who--”

“Loki,” Stark interrupted, stepping up beside them with a sharp expression. “He’s marrying Loki.”

The expressions of those in the group ran through a broad spectrum of emotions, some better concealed - mostly Agent Romanoff and the King of Wakanda - than others. “I am,” Thor said. Their expressions soured some of his joy. He narrowed his eyes. “This makes you uncomfortable,” he said.

Rogers opened and shut his mouth a few times. Stark found his voice first, “For a couple of reasons, yeah.”

Thor nodded. “Then you do not have to attend,” he said.

“He’s your brother,” Rogers managed, after they began walking once more.

Thor inclined his head in acknowledgment. The thought had occurred to him, more than once. But there was nothing to be done about it. “He bore my child,” he said. “Surely marrying him should not shock you more than that.”

They had entered the city as he spoke, and he heard Loki’s voice, directing some construction effort. He adjusted their path so that they headed in that direction, spotting the fall of Loki’s hair as they turned a corner, near the construction of permanent quarters for the Valkyries.

Rogers exchanged a glance with the one they called the Sorcerer Supreme. He said, “We, uh, thought that was more of a… magical side-effect of all this. Not,” he steeled himself and soldiered on, “you know, the result of, uh, active participation.”

Thor blinked at them. “No,” he said, wondering how it was no one seemed aware of the depth of his feelings on the subject. Perhaps he had gotten too used to hiding things he ought not feel. He sighed, shaking the thoughts aside. Perhaps a demonstration would clarify matters for all of them.

He threaded his way through the crowd to where Loki stood, holding an image in the air of what the building currently in construction ought to look like when completed. One of the nursemaids held Frigga a few feet away, cooing to her softly.

Thor felt a weight lift off of his chest as he approached. He ever felt anxious when they were out of his sight; he wondered if, someday, that would pass into memory and he would not fear so much the harm that could come to them were he not there.

He reached Loki then and touched his arm, delighted by the little furrow in Loki’s brow as he worked, glancing up towards Thor with eyes that widened in surprise when Thor tugged him closer, bent, and kissed him soundly upon the mouth.

“You’re in good spirits,” Loki said, when Thor drew back, his mouth reddened and curiosity in his eyes.

“I am now.” Thor kissed him once more for good measure, turned back to the visitors trailing at his back, and flashed them a smile. They looked put off their balance. He was beginning to take some pleasure in putting that look on other people’s faces.

#

A second court dinner in as many days wore Thor’s patience. He’d never cared for them much when he could make his excuses and escape early, generally helped in the evasion of his duties by some clever ploy of Loki’s.

Now, they were both expected to remain, toasting and feeding people that, with each passing hour, Thor wished would just return to their homes. There was so much work to be done on New Asgard. Playing host seemed a poor use of his time.

He frowned over those thoughts as the meal moved towards a close at the pace of an injured thurg, watching Loki discuss some working or another with the one they called Strange. The other Midgardians looked nearly as ready for the meal to end as Thor did, save Romanoff. Thor wondered if she had gathered yet enough information about them to report back to Fury.

He had heard Rocket speaking with the rest of his crew earlier about the need to move on and get to the next job. He held out the hope that they would leave before necessitating another dinner the following evening.

“They do not approve of your talk of marriage,” Heimdall said, from his place at Thor’s side, leaning back in his chair and gazing out across the table towards where the Midgardians sat. He kept his voice low, barely audible above the music filling the room.

“No,” Thor agreed. He ever found peace in Heimdall’s presence. “They do not.” But Thor had never very much cared who approved of what he did. It had gotten him into trouble in the past. He grimaced, rubbing his face, and asked, “And our people? Do they disapprove as well?”

Heimdall blinked, looking taken off of his guard momentarily. “Of your wedding?”

Thor cut him a look, and Heimdall shrugged, a brief smile touching his mouth. “No,” he said, tilting his head to the side before he continued. “You must understand, most of the survivors never saw you before the destruction of Asgard-That-Was. You were ever off, galavanting around the galaxy - no,” he said, shaking his head, “it is not reprimand, only fact. They barely knew you as Odin’s son. Now you are their King. You brought them to a new home. To them you are almost another person altogether than the princling they barely knew.”

Thor breathed in and out for a moment, aware he had not exactly gotten an answer. “And Loki? What do they think of him?”

Heimdall lifted his cup and settled forward, closer to Thor. “Many did not trust him. Before. But we died,” he said, slowly, after a moment. “And were cast adrift in the grey nothing. Bodiless. Lost. Despairing. Cut off forever from Valhalla.” He looked up then, his gold eyes bright and almost terrible to behold.

“And he found us. All of us. Gathered us close and kept us from madness for long months before giving us back these physical forms, this world. New Asgard.” He paused, frowning thoughtfully at the world around them and heaving a sigh. “If you try to marry another, if you try to set aside Frigga, they will disapprove.”

Thor shivered at the surety in his words, though he would never had taken such a choice.

“Besides,” Heimdall added, leaning back once more, “the marriage may be the only thing that secures the treaty with Jotunheim.”

Thor grimaced and shut his eyes against the sudden worsening of his headache. “You know?”

Heimdall chuffed a laugh at him. “Boy, when have you ever kept anything from me? My sight still stretches far. You will need to handle it. Soon.”

Thor knew that. Had known it since he made the promise, but there had been New Asgard to build and Loki to tend to in the aftermath. And with the birth of Frigga he had realized, with terrible clarity, that he did not want to give up one of his children to rule on some frozen world far away.

Life had taught him nothing if not that he could not have all the things he wanted. He sighed, squeezed Heimdall’s shoulder, and prayed this meal would soon end, watching Loki drift towards the balcony, his conversation with Strange apparently coming to an end.

#

Tony wondered if every meal in Asgard were such a big to-do. It seemed a bit excessive, but, then, they were dining with the royal family. He ate the fresh food provided and drank the clear water - they had had no time to brew any spirits yet on New Asgard - and listened to the chatter around the room.

Strange and Loki’s conversation seemed interesting, but only to them. Tony had no grasp of magic and, in all honesty, no desire to understand it more. The universe should follow certain laws. It irritated him that, for some people, it just didn’t.

Their conversation ended, eventually, leaving Strange frowning at a glowing model while Loki drifted off towards one of the balconies off the dining room. Tony had to hand it to the architects among the Aesir. They did fast, beautiful work. Given roughly two weeks, they’d put together an impressive city.

Perhaps there was a god of builders at work. He should ask.

He pushed his chair back, without quite thinking through what he was doing, and threaded his way across the beautiful room. Perhaps he should ask Loki. After all, he didn’t appear to be talking to anyone else at the moment.

The air inside the dining room smelled of delicious food and warmth. Outside, the night had turned cool. Tony shivered a little as he stepped out, finding Loki standing against the railing, looking outward.

“You are either very brave or very, very foolish,” Loki said, without turning. He continued to stare out over the city, the wind stirring his hair. His fingers curled around the railing on the balcony. He seemed unbothered by the bite of the night air.

The chill settled in Tony’s bones enough for both of them. He snorted, curling up one side of his mouth, and said, “It’s been said before.” He took a step forward, half-expecting Loki to flinch, but saw no sign of concern in his bearing. “You know, you don’t seem particularly upset with me.” He decided to see how far his luck could be pushed and walked to the railing, leaning a hip against it.

Loki stared down at the city, his eyes half-lidded and distant. He said, “Thor is angry because you broke his trust.”

That did not quite match up with the previous topic of conversation, but Tony’s mind had always worked quickly. He could connect them. He frowned. “And you never trusted me, is that it?”

Loki looked at him, sudden and startling, holding his gaze for an uncomfortably long time before he tilted his head to the side and said, “You wore your intentions clearly enough.”

Tony felt heat rise in his cheeks and turned aside. “You know, I don’t think you can really blame us for thinking something was up. You tried to burn our planet down not that long ago. And then you show up making impossible promises…. Or not so impossible promises, I guess.” He sighed, cracking his neck from side to side. “How did you do it, anyway?”

Loki flashed him another smile. “Magic.”

“Right, I keep forgetting that’s a legitimate answer to questions in the world now.” He tapped his fingers on the railing. It was hard to reconcile the man standing beside him with the man who had brought death and destruction raining down on all of them, full of mad energy and hatred. He frowned over at Loki. “Is he ever going to forgive me?”

Loki shrugged. “Would you?”

He thought of his parents, a car on the side of the road, gunshots, the haunted face of Steve’s friend, tried to imagine losing Pepper that way, instead… He flinched and hunched his shoulders up. “Fair enough,” he said, and then, because he wanted nothing more than to stop thinking about someone - someone he knew and trusted - taking Pepper away from him, “You know, I could have sworn your eyes were blue when we first met.”

It was strange, watching Loki go still. It brought with it the realization that he had been constantly moving in some small way before, like only noticing that a clock was ticking when it stopped. He said, “Midgardian memory must be--”

The sudden crack of thunder through the air gave Tony enough time to realize that he’d pushed his luck farther than he should have, and then hands seized him. He grunted at the impact of a wall against his back, dizzied and smelling ozone in the air. He thought he was seeing spots and then realized, belatedly, that there were streaks of electricity dancing across Thor’s skin as he snarled, holding Tony against the wall and snapping, “I will--”

“Thor,” Loki said, quietly, close. He stood by Thor’s shoulder, arm curled around so his hand pressed against Thor’s chest. Tony blinked at him, gripping at Thor’s wrist and thinking that he’d really like to be put back on the ground. Loki sounded amused when he added, “Be diplomatic.”

“Are you alright?” Thor asked, taking a break from glaring at Tony to look Loki over.

“Yes. Let him down.” Thor did not budge for a moment, a muscle in his jaw jumping, and then he nodded and released Tony all at once. Tony sucked in a breath of welcome air, nodding at Loki past Thor’s shoulder. Some acknowledgement seemed in order.

“Remove yourself from my sight,” Thor said, the words clipped off, dragged up from somewhere in his gut.

Tony opened his mouth, ready to protest his case one more time, and decided, based on the electricity crackling in the air, that he could wait for a better time. “Alright,” he said, taking a step backwards. “But we need to talk about this later.”

He left them on the balcony, stealing glances as Thor drew Loki closer, his touch terribly cautious.

#

“Peace, Thor,” Loki chided, rolling his eyes as though Stark had not just been in his presence, alone. Thor scowled, looking him over once more for injury and then relenting. His heart beat too fast beneath his skin, and he breathed in and out slowly.

“Why did you not have a Valkyrie with you?” he asked, frowning.

“There are a dozen of them inside,” Loki said, shrugging and cutting him a sideways look. “He was your friend.”

“Once,” Thor said, feeling his hands clench and shaking away the frustration. He could do nothing about it, but it was a poor start to this conversation. Still, it needed to be had, and he had never been one to shirk a duty because of dread alone. He drew a bracing breath, and said, “I need to speak with you. About the Jotun.”

Something in Loki’s posture shifted, as though he were bracing for a blow. He asked, carefully, “What about them?”

Thor should have mentioned his arrangement before, but when had there been time? He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck, and said, “When we were on Jotunheim, during your working, I told you I kept them talking.”

Loki narrowed his eyes, running ahead of the conversation as was ever his wont, “What did you promise them?”

Thor grimaced. “Jotunheim is failing,” he said. “Thawing. Even I could see that. Without either the Cask of Ancient Winters or Laufey’s power….” He trailed off, trying to shape what must be said next.

“Ah,” Loki said, his mouth going thin and pale. “And I suppose they could think of only one person that might still carry Laufey’s power. Are we to save Jotunheim, then, in exchange for them not murdering us upon the snow?”

Loki’s proclivity for running, reckless, ahead of a conversation had frustrated Thor in the past. But having someone pluck the words from his thoughts made the process of admitting to his arrangements much easier. He nodded, grimaced, and continued, “They also... Their chieftains have been warring with one another. Laufey left no successor.”

Loki frowned and said, after a careful moment, hesitantly as though he were picking his way across a dark, unfamiliar room, “They will never take me as ruler.”

Thor thought of all that had come from Loki’s first interactions with the Jotun and said, “No.”

Loki tilted his face up and stared at the sky. “They would have thought me pregnant,” he said. “With Laufey’s grandchild. An acceptable ruler, I suppose.”

Thor’s heart raced uncomfortably. He kept waiting for anger and the lack of it made him anxious. “I did not think you were truly pregnant at the time,” he said, offering what defense he had for the deals he had made without any consultation.

“Who did they think got the child on me?” Loki asked, but seemed to be speaking to himself, because he immediately looked over and narrowed his eyes. “A half-Aesir child. You mean to tell me they even entertained the idea?”

“They are desperate,” Thor said.

“Desperate enough to put our child on the throne?”

“Yes,” Thor said, watching Loki’s expression shift again. “Jotunheim will fall. But it does not have to, and they know it. You can stop the unraveling of the world. And one of our children could rule there, when they came of age. They could end the long war between our peoples for true.”

“Killing me would also end the long war,” Loki said, the words spoken cool and even between them.

“Not without destroying Jotunheim as well,” Thor said, ignoring the faint rumble of thunder at the thought. “They know Laufey is dead. I think they’ve decided they’d rather not all die as well.”

Loki frowned thoughtfully, tilting his head to the side and smiled brightly. “Very well,” he said. “We will make arrangements. We will go to Jotunheim. And we will see what must be done. Quickly. I could feel the planet’s death throes when we were there. We will not have much time.”

Thor exhaled the breath he had not even realized he was holding. He nodded, bent, kissed Loki, and exited the balcony. Plans would need to be made. And they would have to fit in before the wedding ceremonies began. He had no intention of moving back that date.

#

Nebula hated how much New Asgard reminded her of her stolen world, but there was nothing to be done about that, and at least they would be leaving this place soon. Their imminent departure drew her through the halls, following the guardswoman who claimed to be taking her to Loki.

She was delivered, eventually, out of the palace, out of the city, and to a field in front of an apple tree. Loki stood there, his head bowed, faint tendrils of pale blue energy surrounding his hands. She frowned, sat, and began maintenance on her arm as she waited for him to finish.

“Ugh,” he said, eventually, stepping back and cracking his neck from side to side. “That always gives me a headache.”

She didn’t ask what he was doing. She didn’t care. She closed the compartment on her arm and stood, so she could look across at him. He watched her movements carefully. She said, “You’re a powerful sorcerer. More powerful than the one we traveled with from Earth.”

He smiled; it seemed his default expression. “Power is relative,” he said.

She shunted aside a rising wash of impatience. “I don’t wish to discuss it with you,” she said. “I know he can’t help me, but I think maybe you can.”

Loki tilted his head, watching her with half-lidded eyes. “And what do you need help with?”

Her biometric scanners said the guardswoman was far enough away that she should not be able to overhear, unless she’d been augmented in some way. Nebula had seen no sign of such modifications on the planet thus far. She said, pitching her voice low, “My sister.”

And that sharpened something in Loki’s expression, brought around some level of attention that Nebula had not even realized was lacking until he turned it to her. “Your sister,” he said. “Ah, Gamora.”

“Yes.” Nebula adjusted her pulse level. It kept trying to tick upwards, out of stable ranges. “She--Thanos took her. To get the Soul Stone. He killed her, or tried, but she’s like me. Her implants maintained enough function to keep her body viable until we found her. It took considerable work, but we revived her.”

Loki frowned. “The new scar on her forehead,” he said, and she nodded.

 

“Yes. I performed most of the repairs myself and…” She found she could not put into words how hard she had worked, the tireless hours put into making sure each connection was correct and functioning properly, the careful dedication of putting Gamora’s mind back together. “And I thought I did them properly.”

Loki said, “But?”

“But I didn’t,” she hissed, and then rerouted the flow of anger, dumping as much of it as she could to back-processing. She needed his help. “I don’t know why. But she isn’t… There’s something missing. No one else seems to notice it, but I do. I’ve known her too long not to.”

“Perhaps it is only how she is dealing with the trauma,” Loki said, and Nebula scoffed at him.

“I know how Gamora handles trauma.”

He inclined his head, acceptance, and began pacing a little. He said, after a long moment, “You said Thanos used her to get the Soul Stone.”

“Yes.” Nebula frowned. “Is that relevant?”

He shrugged. “It may be. I’d likely need it to offer any help.”

Nebula performed a quick query on the location of the Soul Stone and found no information in her memory. “Where is it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I last saw it with the Midgardian - Rogers. I don’t know what they did with it. I’d offer to help you look for it, but I am about to go on a… diplomatic visit that may take some time. And everyone would be so suspicious if I started asking after it.” His smile looked thin and somewhere between amused and bitter.

“I’ll find it.” If Thanos had taught her nothing else, he had taught her how to hunt down those damned Stones. “And then you can help.” She frowned at him. “Can’t you? Will you?”

His mouth quirked and then the expression faded as he looked at her. She watched all evidence of amusement drain away. He looked sad, for a moment, and she could not determine why. “Yes,” he said, “I think I can. And, yes. I will help you help your sister, if possible.”

“Good,” she said. “Then I will take no more of your time.” The faster he could finish whatever he was doing, the faster he could take care of this diplomatic mission, the faster Gamora could get the assistance she needed, so she was… right again.

#

Tony got the feeling that they’d worn out their welcome on New Asgard even before Thor told them, in no uncertain terms, that they’d have to go so he and Loki could swoop off across the galaxy to handle some melting world.

He accepted the statement without a fight. It was hard to argue when he had to live with the knowledge that he’d burned the bridge between them to ash. Besides, the Guardians were well ready to leave, back to whatever jobs they had lined up.

Only Strange requested to stay behind, explaining, at the askance looks he got, “I’ve never even dreamed that anything like this world might be possible. I am very interested in studying it further.”

Thor had glanced at Loki - and didn’t that still give Tony an uncomfortable lurching feeling in his chest - and agreed to allow Strange to stay when Loki only shrugged. So they were one short on their return trip.

It was a quiet journey back to Earth. Tony stared at the blue-green globe as they approached, still unused to seeing it from such a distance, and wondered if they’d made anything better by their visit.

He wondered, too, if he’d be better able to sleep back on Earth, or if his haunted thoughts would keep him up. He shook the thoughts aside when Nebula walked down the ramp beside them as they disembarked. “Hey there,” he said, “I didn’t think this was your stop.”

She looked over at him, frowning. “Do you have a problem with my visit?” she asked, the strange mechanical echo to her voice finally becoming familiar.

Tony had no desire to upset any of the rest of their few intergalactic friends. He raised his hands, stepping back and shaking his head. “It’s fine with me,” he said. “Just asking.”

She nodded as the Benatar prepped for takeoff. She stared at it as it rose through the sky, ignoring the buffeting winds as Tony ignored the curious looks they were getting from Rogers and Romanoff. “You going to tell me why you’re sticking around?” he asked.

She looked back at him, dark eyes narrowed. “No,” she said. She turned and walked away, then. He watched her go, but what could he say? It was a free country. She could walk into town if she really wanted to.

“What was that about?” Rogers asked, frowning after Nebula’s back.

 

“No idea.” Tony rubbed his face. He glanced up, “So, that whole trip could have gone better, huh?”

Rogers snorted and shrugged. “Could have gone worse.”

For a moment they said nothing, standing shoulder to shoulder, and then Tony snorted, nodded, and headed for the front door. The repair work had progressed well in his time away, but there was still a charred smell to the air as he stepped inside.

He took a breath and said, “Hey, Friday, any word on Ms. Sykes?”

#

“You will lead New Asgard while we are away,” Thor said, frowning across the city and dreading the thought of leaving it, even in Heimdall’s capable care. He had ever been away from Asgard-That-Was too often. Perhaps if he had not…

Heimdall snorted, distracting him from his thoughts. “Only while you are away?”

Thor cut him a look and said, “I should send you to the Jotun.”

Heimdall’s expression sobered. “Would that I could go in your stead and leave you here to plan for your impending nuptials.” He walked over, gazing over the city. “You are sure you want to take Frigga?”

That had been the largest point of contention as they planned for their journey. Taking her was risky, and he knew it. The Jotun would find her a tempting target if they did not keep to their honor - if she even carried enough of Laufey’s blood to prove acceptable to them. But the thought of leaving her behind was physically painful. It sped Thor’s pulse just to consider it.

“Yes,” he said. “She travels with us.”

Heimdall sighed. “You should take more of the Valkyries.”

Thor braced his hands against the balcony, leaning his weight against it and resisting the urge to hang his head. “We cannot leave New Asgard undefended. With Loki and I gone…” He shrugged. He did not trust the Midgardians to leave them unharassed, despite their promises of setting up talks to develop a treaty.

“You could delay until Frigga is older,” Heimdall said, apparently determined to have the entirety of this argument yet a third time.

“No,” Thor said, pushing away from the railing. “We can’t. Jotunheim will not last.”

“I know,” Heimdall said, his frown growing deeper. “I just don’t like this.”

Thor clapped him on his shoulder and flashed a brief smile. “Oh, come now,” he said, with all the forced joviality he could muster. “What’s not to like?”

#

Nebula would have preferred to speak with the one they called Agent Romanoff in the quiet of night, when most of the world of Earth appeared to sleep, but the Agent shared quarters with Rogers, and Nebula understood information security; better to restrict the number of people who knew what she was looking for on the planet.

So, she waited until Rogers left the domicile they shared, slipped past the paltry security, and made her way through the structure, finding Romanoff in a dining area. She expected Romanoff to suck in a startled breath, to jump, perhaps, when she stepped into the room, but got only a sideways look for her trouble. “Fancy meeting you here,” Romanoff said, smiling a small smile.

Nebula ignored the inane greeting. “You know many things about this world,” she said. “Secret things.”

Romanoff’s expression shifted, some adjustment being made behind her eyes. Her smile remained unchanged. “I suppose I do,” she said. “Now that you mention it. Why?”

Nebula walked to stand across the table. She did not sit. “I have been combing your information databases for data that I am unable to find.” It had been frustrating. Most of the security protocols used on this world were childish things. Despite the ease of their dismissal, she had been unable to get the answers she needed.

“Did you try Googling it?” Romanoff asked, watching Nebula over the edge of her coffee cup.

Nebula ignored this dry suggestion. “I need to know the location of the Infinity Stones. I know they are on this planet. You have no means to transport them away. But their location is not stated.”

“And why would you need to find the Infinity Stones?” Romanoff asked, still holding her cup, though her fingers flexed against it.

Nebula sighed, notifications of her rising levels of impatience nudging at her, harsh reminders that she dismissed, one after another. “It is a personal matter,” she said.

Romanoff leaned back in her chair, taking one hand off of her cup, and Nebula drew the weapon at her waist, leveling it on Romanoff and saying, “Don’t.” The weapon beneath the table glowed an angry red on her scans.

Romanoff returned her hand to the coffee cup with an irritated expression. “You know,” she said, “last time someone came to Earth looking for the Infinity Stones, it didn’t go well for anyone.”

“I have no desire to take all of them or to harm your world in any way,” Nebula said. “I only need to access one of them. I can return it when I’m finished.” In fact, it might be destroyed as far as she knew. Or Loki could decide to keep it. She didn’t really care. But by the rate of Romanoff’s pulse and respiration, she needed reassurance before they could continue this conversation.

“Hm,” Romanoff said. “Of course, it’s not likely you’d tell me you planned to use them to burn down the universe.”

Nebula frowned. She’d never gotten the hang of asking nicely for answers. She said, “I don’t want to have to make you answer me, but I can.”

Romanoff’s eyes changed, somehow. Something in her expression shifted; the result reminded Nebula of what she saw in the mirror when she risked an occasional glance. Romanoff said, lightly, “You can try.”

Nebula blew out a breath in frustration, cutting off the more violent tactical options presented in her mind and lowering her weapon abruptly. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m only trying to help my sister. Please. Just tell me where your people would have hidden the Stones.”

For a moment they only stared at one another. Romanoff leaned further back in her chair, the dead flatness of her eyes passing. She said, gesturing to the other chair with her chin, “I think you better tell me exactly what’s going on.”

#

They arrived on Jotunheim not with a war party, not as a desperate pair, but with a retinue at their backs. It felt… strange, to step from the warm embrace of the Bifrost onto the frozen surface of Jotunheim. It felt stranger still to realize that the air did not bite so at his flesh or freeze in his lungs as soon as it was inhaled.

The world had warmed. A thaw came. The thought brought an unpleasant shiver down Thor’s spine even as he gazed across the surrounding wastes to the palace city before them.

Loki stood at his side, unmoving for a moment. Alone of them all, his breath did not steam in the air. In Thor’s arms, Frigga squirmed, ever desperate to see more than she currently could, and he looked down to comfort her, the words smothered to muteness as he watched faint blue spread up and across her cheeks.

She blinked and her eyes pinked, growing purple towards the irises. “Loki,” he managed, low and urgent.

Loki stared as well for a moment, his expression shuttered before he said, “Well, she will be too warm in those wraps. Take off the coat.” He sighed and flicked his fingers, his own outerwear disappearing as his skin shifted to rich blue. “Perhaps it is better to meet them like this, anyway,” he said, to Thor’s startled expression.

“They’re coming,” Brunnhilde said, then, quietly. She’d stepped forward and rested her hand upon her weapon, the cold air stirring the heavy fall of her hair. Her sisters arrayed around them, a thin line of defense against the figures emerging from the gates of the palace city.

The Jotun came down out of their vast walls, tall and proud figures, but carrying themselves carefully. Thor saw hunger in them, desperate hunger, and pain buried deep yet digging it’s way to the surface.

They were half-corpses, it seemed, so far from the fierce Jotun of the tales that it made some space inside his chest ache. They faded. And they were his people, just as much as the Aesir, now. “Wait,” he said to Brunnhilde, tightening his grip on Frigga despite her squirming. He rested his axe against his other shoulder, staying in place when Loki took one step forward and waited.

The Jotun slowed as they grew nearer. Thor recognized Gangr at the front of their group and felt some of the tension in his gut ease. He did not know what to expect, what changes could have been wrought in their time away.

The Jotun stopped with yet some distance between their parties, eyeing them over with flat expressions belied by their hungry eyes. Their attention shifted between Loki and Frigga, telling in the way that they ignored those of only Aesir stock. “Greetings from the halls of New Asgard,” Loki said, as the last of them drew to a stop, his voice clear and ringing in the frozen world.

“Greetings, Thunderer,” Gangr said. “Greetings, Valkyries, it is long since your folk stepped foot on our world. And greetings, Regicide.”

“Patricide, too,” Loki said, agreeably. “And still Laufey’s only heir. If we are getting our titles out of the way.”

Gangr scowled at Loki for a moment, before his gaze slid back towards Frigga. “The child carries Laufey’s blood as well.”

“She does,” Loki said. “And someday she will be strong. Strong enough to work the magics that hold Jotunheim together.” Thor watched the ripple that sent through the gathered Jotun. Hands drifted towards weapons. He wondered, not for the first time, just how desperate they were. How desperate he would be, in their situation.

“But that will not be for many years. Tell me,” Loki paused to gaze across the world, “how many years do you think you have before you can live here no longer?”

“Not enough to see her grow to womanhood,” Gangr said, his mouth set in an unhappy line. Loki said nothing, simply letting the acknowledgment settle between them. Gangr clenched his hands into fists. “But you remade Asgard.”

“Thor remade Asgard,” Loki said, with an incline of his head, and Gangr scoffed.

“It was your working, sorcerer.”

“Sorcerer am I, now?” The sharp, amused tone drew another scowl from Gangr, and fiercer looks from some of the other Jotun. Gangr raised a hand when one started to step forward.

“You’ve earned that title as well,” Gangr said. “You brought back the Aesir dead. You have power now.”

“I do,” Loki said.

“Power enough to shore up the spells that hold Jotunheim together,” Gangr said, and there was a question in his tone, hopeful and desperate despite his obvious effort to reveal nothing of his emotions. Loki inclined his head in brief acknowledgment, waiting, letting the silence stretch until a Jotun stepped forward.

The warrior loomed, tremendously threatening even in his diminished state. He snarled, “Then you will do it. Now.”

Loki cocked his head to the side. “Will I?” he asked, and only his faint amusement kept Thor from grabbing him back, tucking him into safety.

“You will,” the warrior snarled. “Or we will cut down your mate and your pup, stain the ice with their blood, and take such recompense from you as is just.”

Loki stared up into the warrior’s face as the man loomed over him. Thor shifted his grip on the axe, anger and sharp fear blending into a terrible mixture in his blood. He knew his own abilities and most of Loki’s, he knew what the Valkyries could do. They could likely cut down these weakened Jotun, but--

“Try if you like,” Loki said, each word cold and sharp. “And consign all that you love to a slow death of starvation and heat sickness. Ready yourself to watch the world thaw, to watch the slow misery of your children and your mate, to watch yourself waste away until you beg for death to simply end the pain.”

The Jotun stared at him as though enraptured, caught up in the words, their expressions reflecting horror. “Or,” Loki said, brightening suddenly, “you can step back and think never of threatening my family again.”

Gangr swore into the resulting silence and demanded, near spitting, “And what will be your price?”

Loki glanced at him, past the warrior still looming between them, and said, “Less than you imagine, I’m sure. But, perhaps, if we are not going to all kill one another on the snow, we could move discussions to somewhere more acceptable for my traveling partners? They do not handle even the warming temperatures on Jotunheim well.”

#

Tony was expecting Pepper when he answered the door - she should have been finished with her trip halfway across the world - but it was Ms. Sykes that he found waiting on his doorstep. “Mr. Stark,” she said, smiling placidly up at him, “how was your trip?”

He frowned at her thoughtfully. Friday had been most informative about Ms. Sykes. Her history was so covered in redacted smears that it reminded him a bit of Natasha. He set aside those thoughts. “Oh, you know,” he said, stepping aside and waving her inside. “It was a nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

“Mm,” she said, following him to the sitting room. “And can you give me the information we’re looking for about threat levels? What can we expect from these aliens?”

Tony stared at her. He remembered, with horrific vividness, fearing some kind of reprisal from Thor, fearing that Loki had taken him off to some other world to do… well, who knew, really? Not set up house and bring back the dead.

He said, “Honestly, I think you can expect them to open negotiations pretty soon.”

“Negotiations,” Ms. Sykes said, as though she’d never heard the word before. “Negotiations for what?”

Tony sighed and waved his glass through the air. “A mutual non-aggression pact, for starters? I don’t think they’re planning to attack us, Ms. Sykes. I know that’s what the primary concern has been here. I think they just want to… settle down.”

Ms. Sykes stared at him, unblinking. She said, finally, “And you believe they would come here for negotiations?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Hell, probably. We left Strange on the planet. New Asgard. I left him an updated communicator, you could probably contact him to set something up.” He decided not to mention that the rulers were currently off negotiating with some other planet and planning their wedding ceremony.

That kind of news could probably wait until tensions were a bit lower.

“I see,” Ms. Sykes said. “Well, I must thank you for your help with this matter.” She stood, straightening her skirt. “Could I have the information for the communication device you left with… Strange?”

#

Negotiations had never interested Thor much. His opinion did not change on Jotunheim. They were delivered into a huge meeting area, full of grey ice and frozen marks of blood. Loki took the largest seat in the place, raising an eyebrow when Gangr opened his mouth as though to protest.

It was a strange opening to strange proceedings. The Jotun threw disparations, Loki reminded them that Jotunheim would die - and soon - without his intervention. They argued back and forth of old hurts and wounds, of the penalties for striking down Laufey and what would happen to them if they insisted on killing Loki where he stood.

Thor stood through it, strengthening arguments and biding his patience until Loki sighed, finally, and stood from the too-big throne, brushing himself off.

“We waste words,” he said, he who had never despaired of wasting words before. “Do you wish to live? Do you wish Jotunheim to live?”

The gathered Jotun stared at him, all of them in the chamber, even those who had sworn they would never look upon his cursed visage. Loki looked out across them and one corner of his mouth lifted. “Then you know you must accept me. You know my child must take the throne. Decide if you can bear it amongst yourselves. Bring me your answer by morning.”

He turned, then, his gaze catching Thor’s. Thor placed a hand on his shoulder, turning him from the massive room as the voices rose around them in a roar, arguments springing from every voice as they walked down the hall to their cold quarters.

“Will they agree?” Brunnhilde asked, when they entered their rooms. None of them had spoken a word on the walk. Thor could still hear the arguments from the chambers.

“Yes,” Loki said, handing Frigga to her and looking, for a moment, terribly tired. “They don’t have a choice.”

#

The answer came in the morning. Gangr brought it, knocking upon their door. Brunnhilde answered; Thor and Loki had yet to emerge from their rooms. From what she had heard, they had spent much of the night awake.

“Hey,” she said. Long exile had stolen whatever use she’d ever had for pleasantries. “How’s it going?”

Gangr wrinkled his nose down at her. “I must speak with Laufeyson and the Thunderer.”

Brunnhilde squinted at him. “Good news?”

He only stared back. She sighed and waved a hand, crossing the room to knock on the bedroom door. It opened at her touch, just enough for her to look in. The bed, such as it was, drew her gaze. There were furs piled atop the slab of ice. She thought she saw Thor’s tousled head in the mass of them somewhere.

Loki sat on the side of the bed, his feet flat on the floor, his elbows on his knees, his head bent. His skin shone blue in the faint light of morning. Scars - the scars she had seen before, when he brought her from the Grey Wastes - stretched across his skin.

“Gangr’s here,” she said, turning her gaze aside. “Wants to talk to you.”

He nodded, not lifting his gaze from the ground. He stood, the blanket falling away even as his armor formed over his skin. He bent and whispered something to Thor, who stirred all at once. Brunnhilde stepped back out of the room and flashed Gangr a quick look. “Give them a minute,” she said.

He nodded. He looked… the right size to be in the room. The furniture did not seem over large when compared to him. It was strange. Brunnhilde had always known the Jotun were larger than the Aesir, but most of the wars with the Frost Giants had been before even her time. She had never fought them on the field of battle.

They waited, watching one another in uncomfortable silence, until Thor and Loki finally exited their rooms, clad appropriately, with Frigga held carefully in Thor’s arms.

“Good morning, Gangr,” Loki said. “Can I--”

“We accept,” Gangr interrupted, drawing himself up to his full height and straightening his shoulders.

Loki shut his mouth and then, after a moment, started to speak again, “You accept what?”

“You,” he said, sounding almost shocked to hear the words coming from his mouth. “Your assistance. Your child’s right to the throne.”

“And if I ask for the throne?” Loki asked, tilting his head to the side. “As my birthright?”

Gangr’s jaw clenched. Jotun body language was hard to read, but not impossible. His discomfort radiated off of him. “There is more than one way to end a people. Would you break us completely?” he asked, finally.

Loki stared at him. He took a breath, almost startled, and shook his head. “No, it turns out I won’t,” he said. “Fine. You will be regent, then, until my child comes of age. And you will sign such treaties as are just with Asgard. We will be a people joined by blood and blade.”

Gangr ducked his head, relief hidden when he shut his eyes. “We agree to these terms,” he said.

Loki nodded, “Good. As a mark of good faith between the Aesir and the Jotun, I will stabilize Jotunheim’s core now, before the treaties are signed.” Gangr took the words like a blow, like a man getting an unexpected stay of execution, only to flinch when Loki continued. “I only have a question, something I’ve never been able to answer on my own.”

Gangr looked at him, eyes sharp as though looking for a trap to spring. “Ask your question,” he said.

Loki watched him, eyes shuttered so tightly that no expression escaped them. “Why?” he asked. “Why was I left to die on the snow?”

Gangr swallowed. The air in the room seemed colder and thicker. Brunnhilde shifted her weight, half to stay warm and half because she did not know what to expect. Gangr’s voice, when he spoke, seemed to come from far away. “We knew the Aesir were coming,” he said, finally, picking the words carefully. “We knew the size of their host. And we knew much of our strength was spent.”

Loki stared at him, eyes clear and sharp, some deep grief carving into his face with each word. “We knew only the winter’s heart could help us match them. But the winter is a cold mistress. She gives nothing for free.”

“You sacrificed him. For victory,” Thor said, into the silence left after the words. Brunnhilde was getting used to seeing his anger, the way it played across his features and charged the air. Gangr shifted to look at Thor, but only for a moment.

“You were the child of Laufey, born shining with power. Any other offering would have been unworthy. You should have perished long before the Aesir ever crossed to our land.”

“But I didn’t.” There was too much in Loki’s voice. It hurt Brunnhilde to hear it, making something in her chest ache.

“True,” Gangr agreed. “You lived, and we lost. And for many years I thought our sacrifice was rejected.”

“Maybe you simply chose poorly,” Loki snapped, turning aside all at once, as though it would hide the wash of agony across his face.

“No,” Gangr’s expression twisted, as well, with something too large to contain. “We chose well. We were just impatient. You were given to the winter, and now you are here, to restore Jotunheim, to end the long war with the Aesir, and to strengthen us once more.”

For a moment, none of them spoke. Thor stood between Loki and Gangr. The air smelled like a blizzard and electricity. And then Loki laughed, the sound cracking. “So I am,” he said, and pressed a hand against the wall. “Wait for me at sunset.”

#

Pepper arrived home a day late, delayed by poor weather. Tony waited for her outside the manse, ignoring the chill in the air and smiling at her when she approached. She bent to kiss his forehead and said, “It doesn’t seem fair that you beat me back from our trips. You went so much further.”

“I’ll take you along next time,” he said, closing his eyes and breathing in deeply, soaking in her presence.

“Oh,” she said, giving him a hand to his feet. “For the wedding?” She hadn’t been quite so bothered by the news of the royal alien nuptials. But then, she’d never heard Thor refer to Loki as his brother. In fact, she’d seemed interested in the idea of going.

“Sure, maybe” he said, following her indoors, up the stairs, into their room where he happily watched her take off her heels and pull out her tight ponytail. “Well, hello there, Miss Potts.”

She smiled when he wrapped his arms around her, placing a kiss on her shoulder. “Are you feeling better?” she asked, trailing her fingers over his arms. “I know you were… upset.”

He sighed, rubbing his forehead against her shoulder, his attempt at cheer guttering out. “I made a mistake,” he said. “And I almost…” He stepped back, waving a hand in an attempt to encompass ‘stopped the resurrection of an entire people and also killed my friend’s pregnant lovers.’

She caught his hands, leaning close and kissing his knuckles. “You didn’t know,” she said.

“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “Not to Thor, anyway, and, you know, the more I think about it, not to me? They were going to shoot him in the head, Pepper. And then take his body away to study it. I…”

He shut his jaw. It seemed the best way to keep the nausea contained in his stomach. “You were in an impossible situation,” she said.

“They have a baby, Pepper.” He needed her to understand, to grasp the full scope of what he’d done. “A baby. She’s adorable, by the way.”

She folded him into a hug and didn’t offer any further attempts to placate him. He pressed his face into the curve between her shoulder and her neck and breathed in the sweet smell of her perfume.

“I don’t know how you make something like that better,” he said, against her skin.

“It’s alright,” she said, and he tried, desperately, to believe her, but it did nothing for his nightmares that night, horrible, slithering things that left him wanting to retch when he jerked out of sleep in the pale dawn light.

“I think you need a change of scenery,” she said, stirring beside him on the bed, sliding her arm across his chest. “Come back with me to New York for a while.”

He nodded, less from any true desire to return to the East Coast and more because the idea of staying close to her for a while sounded terribly appealing with his heart racing and bile climbing up the back of his throat.

#

They assembled in the great courtyard of the palace city, all of the members of the court, Jotun warriors and the contingent from New Asgard all clustered together. Great beasts were brought in and mounted. Loki swung upon onto one nearly twice his height with no apparent trouble, smiling down at Thor afterwards, as though unbothered by how naturally he sat the creature.

Every move he made in the frozen world seemed trapped somewhere between belonging perfectly and being completely out of place. Thor’s heart beat faster at that thought, even as he mounted his own beast.

Gangr cleared his throat. “The world’s heart is--”

“I know where it is,” Loki said, turning his mount with his knees, a strange look upon his face. “I have visited it before.”

He dug in his heels then, and the beast leapt forward, to the front of the pack. The other animals churned and charged after, following a running target. Thor held Frigga close as she laughed and gurgled, delighted by the rise and fall of the world around them.

They covered leagues of ground, towards what seemed the very edges of the world, until Loki reigned in his mount and slid off all in one smooth movement. Thor did not recognize the place, but Loki turned in a slow circle, gazing across the ice like he knew it well. Thor reigned up beside him, dismounting, when Loki said, “This is where they left me.”

Thor’s jaw snapped shut. He gazed at Loki’s expression, still and cold, and found he knew not what to saw. He felt fury about the abandonment, and a thick revulsion. He could not imagine abandoning Frigga to the cold, not even if it meant triumph over an enemy. But if Loki had not been left, perhaps they would never have met. Perhaps Thor would be ruling Asgard, a foolish king, conceited and spoiled.

Or perhaps, without Loki’s presence by his side, Asgard would have burned and died and never been revived.

Certainly Thor would not have Frigga, currently pulling his hair and fighting to get down onto the snow.

“Step back,” Loki said, before Thor could find words. “Everyone must step back. No one must touch me as I work.”

“We know,” Gangr said. The Jotun formed a circle, ringing him in as Thor stepped back, joining their ranks. Loki sighed, softly, his armor dissolving into a faint fog that blew away, revealing cobalt skin and the swirls of scars.

He tilted his face to the sky and cupped his hands before his chest, a furrow formed between his brow as his eyes fell shut. The air grew still. The temperature fell, sharp and sudden, prompting a murmur among the Jotun, and a spark of blue light kindled between Loki’s hands.

The light grew into tendrils that wound up Loki’s arms and curled out into the air. They twisted back on themselves and touched, finally, the ground, where they sunk down into the ice, illuminating it as they raced downwards, to some dark spot that Thor could just make out, far, far below their feet.

He did not think the light would be able to reach it. Such a prospect seemed impossible. But it struggled onward, surged, until finally the barest tendril touched the dark spot, which--

The explosion of light was blinding. Thor threw an arm over Frigga’s eyes, crying out in surprise, even as the light faded and then flared once more. It shone up from beneath the ice in pulses, in a rhythm that reminded him of nothing so much as the slow beat of Loki’s heart when he slept, well-sated.

He blinked watering eyes, squinting out to where Loki stood in the middle of the ice, the last of the light running out of his hands and down into the ice. He swayed as the heartbeat washed over him, and Thor pushed Frigga into Brunnhilde’s arms, breaking the circle and crossing to him.

He reached Loki as his knees failed and his eyes rolled back, catching him before he could fall to the unforgiving ice. His skin felt cold enough that Thor’s flesh froze fast to it in places. He ignored the bite of pain, lifting Loki and throwing his cloak across Loki’s bare flesh.

Loki laid limp in his arms, terribly so, but his heart beat in time with the light pulsing under the ice. Thor shivered, looking across the gathered Jotun, who, as one, threw their heads back and cheered, the joyous sound so loud that it crashed over Thor like a wave.

#

Tracking the Infinity Stones proved a greater challenge than Nebula had anticipated when she landed on Earth. They should have been easy to locate. If nothing else, their power signatures should have given them away.

But she could not locate them and neither could Romanoff, who seemed to have decided to help more out of a desire to know exactly what was happening with the Stones than anything else.

Nebula was unbothered by her motivations. She expected to receive no help for free. Such a thing would be foolishness.

But the Stones remained hidden, so that she could only assume that they were somehow using the power of the Stones to mask their locations. Which left them tracking down the Stones with more hands-on efforts, traveling from one location to another, speaking with, bribing, and threatening anyone who might have had a hand in moving them.

Rogers accompanied them on their travels. Nebula was unsure what drove him; perhaps it was enough that Romanoff was accompanying her around the world.

She saw much of Earth over the following days, taking in the strange manner of the people of the world, who stared at her but did not seem overly afraid of her form. They should have been, she knew, but she did not go out of her way to adjust their reactions to her presence.

It was enough to listen to news reports about the new planet that had formed, to see articles about both Thor and Loki and even her traveling companions.

It was strange not to be recognized, first and foremost, as Thanos’s daughter. Nebula found she quite enjoyed that, at least, even as the frustration at her delay of success ate away at her, leading her to distracting processing loops that sometimes ate away hours of her time while they traveled or tried to rest.

“So,” Romanoff said one evening, pulling Nebula from one of the spiraling loops. Rogers had… gone out somewhere. To get food, she recalled, pulling the information from secondary memory processing. “You recognized Loki. You said you knew him. How’d you two meet?”

Nebula blinked, trying to set her thoughts back into order after her escape from the processing loop. “He fell through the void,” she said, drawing up memory files to sort through them. “Some of Thanos’s servants found him and thought him interesting, so they brought him in. I saw him while he was there.”

“Before he led the invasion on Earth,” Romanoff said. Nebula stared, waiting for a question to accompany that statement. It can after a moment. “Did you talk much?”

A memory played out in sharp, vivid detail behind Nebula’s eyes, in perfect, crystal clarity: Loki, bent backwards, struggling vainly to move his head, his eyes squeezed close as he screamed and screamed and screamed.

Nebula blinked the memory away. Torture held little terror for her, not after she had been taken apart and put back together again so many times, each end result more wrong than the previous attempt. Still. There were plenty of images she wished she could erase from her back-up memories. “No,” she said, finally. “We never spoke.”

Romanoff hummed, something thoughtful in her expression when she leaned back. They did not speak again until Rogers returned with food, something greasy that Nebula found she did not care for.

#

They were swept back to the palace city in an ebullient wave. The Jotun formed a circle around them, riding wildly and cheering to bring down the sky itself. It seemed they succeeded, too. Snow fell; the first snow Thor had seen since the arrived, heavy wet flakes that Frigga reached for with bare hands, delight shining out of her pinked eyes.

The celebrations in the palace city had already begun when they reached it. It seemed alive in a way Thor had never seen it, in the way it must have been in the old days. Lights shone everywhere, strange ghost-lights that painted rainbows across the icy walls.

Jotun danced and sang in the streets, from their homes, from the roofs themselves as the snow came down and down and down.

Thor took it all in and wished Loki were conscious to see it all, but his head remained heavy against Thor’s shoulder, his body limp and cold as death, for all that Thor knew he lived.

They were cheered as they moved through the streets. Jotun jostled to get closer, lifting their children up so that they could touch the cloak over Loki’s legs, or Thor, or, in a few daring cases, Frigga, who laughed and grabbed back. The noise and joy followed them into the halls of the palace, where Thor thought they might attempt to bodily lift him for a moment.

Instead, they sang and threw ghost-pale flowers before his feet as he carried Loki through the halls to the rooms they had been given. He exhaled shakily as they stepped through the door, Brunnhilde closing the door on the celebrations and then demanding, “What just happened?” Her hair stuck to her face with melting snowflakes, a helpless, contagious smile set on her mouth. “Really?”

“I think we just made peace with Jotunheim,” Thor said, the words taking a moment to settle around him.

Brunnhilde laughed once, loud, like a necessary valve for emotion. She bumped her shoulder against his and said, “You know, I think you’re right.” She sobered then, frowning and nudging Loki. “Is he alright?”

“I believe so,” Thor said, looking down at his slack face. “Just pushed past the edges of exhaustion. I will see to him and Frigga. You - all of you - should go join the celebrations. It will be good for them to see Aesir taking joy in their renewal.”

Brunnhilde’s frown deepened. “Are you sure about that?”

Thor nodded over his shoulder, carrying Loki into their room. The bed was still a mess from their earlier exertions. He deposited Loki in the middle of it, straightening his limbs so they seemed comfortable. He took Frigga from her arms afterwards. Frigga blinked up at him, her eyes growing sleepy now that the immediate excitement had passed.

“I’m sure,” he said. “Go and strengthen the diplomatic ties between our peoples. Don’t start any fights until we’ve signed that treaty.”

She laughed at him, and they left, giving Thor a moment of quiet to hold Frigga until she drifted off to sleep. He tucked her into the bed beside Loki when she was gone to the world, sighed, and wandered back into the main chamber, hoping to find some additional furs. He seemed the only member of his family who was not immune to the new chill in the air.

There were no more furs to be found, Thor discovered with some irritation. The cold, even steadily increasing as it was, would not be enough to kill him. But it did feel unpleasant. He wondered, with a frown, if Loki experienced this level of discomfort constantly on Asgard.

The thought sat ill with him, but he knew not what to do with it, besides put it to one side and allow it to eat away at him in unguarded moments.

#

Of course, it was not as easy as signing a treaty the next day and having done with it, back to warmer climes. There were dozens of issues to be argued, mostly by folk who had not been alive when the issues first became a problem.

There were moments, in the days following Jotunheim’s reawakening, when Thor wished either Odin or Laufey were yet alive to explain why and how the fissures between their peoples had become so deep in the first place.

But they were both dead and gone and, besides, they would probably have been little help. They’d never managed to make peace in the long millenia while they had both lived, anyway.

It was left to the survivors to try to build a peace out of their fractured history. Discussions ranged from reopening the ports on Jotunheim, to the exact regulations surrounding Gangr’s stewardship, to a schedule for Loki to maintain the spirit of the planet, so it did not begin to fail once more.

“You know,” Brunnhilde said, in the middle of the third day of talks, leaning close to murmur in Thor’s ear, “I used to think maybe I’d die someday on Jotunheim. I didn’t think it would be of boredom.”

Thor did his best to stifle a snort, murmuring an apology when those taking the events more seriously shot him dark looks.The Jotun, at least, grew less chilly towards Loki with each day that passed. They seemed to have set aside their anger over Laufey’s murder. Perhaps that was to be expected with the renewal of their planet.

They stopped calling him regicide, anyway.

A few of the nobles seemed almost kind, even, speaking against some of the few detracting voices that arose during the negotiations. One - Mogthrasir - even flashed smiles, now and then, his teeth very white against his blue skin and his eyes darkening when he looked upon Loki.

Thor knew he should appreciate the kindness. It made his knuckles itch, instead. He disliked the blatant interest, whatever its cause, and he disliked the way it seemed to ever take Loki by surprise.

He did his best to push that dislike to the side. He could not afford to let his anger get the better of him, not here, not with the treaty yet unsigned and his promises to Gangr yet unfulfilled. Besides, he reminded himself, as a balm to the irritation, Loki came back to his bed at night and would be wedded to him once they returned to New Asgard.

That knowledge was enough to keep a glower off his face when Mogthrasir knocked on the door to their quarters one evening. It was strange that he should choose such a time to visit; Loki yet remained in the council chambers with the Valkyries. Thor had brought Frigga back to their quarters to rest after she grew inconsolabily fussy. His daughter appreciated long affairs of state no more than he did, it seemed.

Thor frowned slightly at Mogthrasir. He’d been expecting the return of the rest of the party, not a Jotun he cared little for, and it took a moment to marshal a proper greeting. “Mogthrasir,” he said, after a beat where they watched one another awkwardly, “what a surprise.”

The Jotun flashed a brief smile. “Thunderer,I realized that I had been remiss in offering my congratulations. I hear that the treaty between our peoples will be sealed with your marriage to the Awakener.” He held up a bottle as he spoke. The vessel appeared made of ice and radiated a chill. The liquid inside moved freely, though, unfrozen, and glimmering with light.

Frostwine.

Thor had never drank it, but he’d heard stories enough about it. It was, by all accounts, a singularly delicious beverage. He raised an eyebrow - perhaps he’d truly misread Mogthrasir - and said, “Your congratulations are appreciated.”

Mogthrasir's smile stretched a little thinner. “How wonderful,” he said. “Shall we toast to your good fortune?” He set down the cups he had brought, opening the bottle with a flick of his wrist and pouring two glasses before Thor could answer.

Thor hid a grimace, wondering if this meeting was to lead to talk of concessions, then, or trade. Surely Mogthrasir did not think to get him drunk. Then again, little enough was known now of Jotun social graces. Perhaps he was only seeking to ingratiate himself to his new Asgardian allies.

In any case, Thor wished to try the frostwine. He accepted the glass when it was offered, flashing Mogthrasir a tense smile of his own.

The taste of the frostwine burst across his tongue, sweet and sharp and clear. A myriad new flavors curled around one another, sweet and heady. He swallowed and it felt like taking a drink from a clear spring in the winter, as though a chill coated his throat and burst in his stomach.

It was pleasant, and then the chill spread further, intensifying, replacing enjoyment with a tight pulse of alarm. Thor blinked at the glass - mostly full still - and then turned to glare at Mogthrasir, who was watching him, eyes half-lidded, a lazy smile on his mouth.

“What was in this?” Thor asked, or tried, his throat and mouth felt numb, and the numbness spread quickly, touching his heart and lungs. He stumbled, grabbing for the wall, as his heart stuttered in his chest. He could not feel the wall beneath his hand. His fingertips returned no sensation. “What--”

“Oh, stop trying to speak,” Mogthrasir said, setting down his own glass and taking a step forward, though he stayed well back from Thor’s reach. Thor glared up at him, bent at the waist, fighting to drag in the barest of breathes through his frozen throat. The world swam before him violently. “Relax. Say what prayers you wish to say. You will be dead soon.”

Thor thought he heard thunder, but it was far away. Frigga lay in the room behind him, asleep. Frigga--

Thor gritted his teeth, willing his heart to keep beating, “Why--why--”

“Do you really wish to waste your time on such questions?” Mogthrasir asked. “Come now, surely the Aesir also have methods to get undesirable problems out of the way?” Mogthrasir frowned, then, lifting Thor’s cup. “Maybe you should drink some more.”

“Kill you,” Thor wheezed, his heart jerked off-rhythm and terrible as the chill raced down his legs, sending him swaying to his knees.

“I’m afraid I have killed you first,” Mogthrasir said. “If it brings you comfort, it is not personal. You are simply… in the wrong place.”

Thor shook his head, trying to clear it or dismiss the words. Mogthrasir tsked at him. “Jotunheim is healed now,” he said. “And New Asgard will be weak without you. We do not need a treaty, not with Laufey’s heir returned. Our people can grow strong again. Stronger if our new ruler is pure-born, not some bastard-born half-Aesir.”

Thor finally saw what Mogthrasir held in his hand, then. A blade, small and sharp. Mogthrasir stepped forward, as though to move around Thor, into the room beyond, and Thor grabbed him, winding fingers into his frozen armor and holding tight, glaring up through bleary eyes as his heartbeat began to - finally - grow level once more. “No,” he snarled.

“You know,” Mogthrasir said, frowning down and adjusting his grip on the knife, “you should really be dead by now.”

“Oh, I doubt you could find a poison that would kill him,” Loki said, his voice terribly calm from across the room. Thor looked over at him, his blood surging with sudden hope, blinking back the spots in his vision. The Jotun whipped around as well, jerking away from Thor as though burned.

He exclaimed, “Lord, you misunderstand, I--”

“If you’re going to lie to me,” Loki said, taking another step into the room, a dagger sliding into his hand, “you’re going to have to do much better than that.”

Mogthrasir darted a look between them. Thor sipped at the air, but feeling was beginning to seep back into his fingers. His mind was clearing. Mogthrasir repeated, “You misunderstand, I found--”

Loki took another step forward, cocking his head to the side. He sighed. “I really expected more from the inevitable assassination attempt.”

Mogthrasir'’s skin flushed to splotchy purple. Thor watched his muscles tense and saw, as clearly as day, how the next moments must play out. The Jotun would leap across, he must know that there would be no survival now without a fight. He would lunge for Loki, the bigger threat, and then return to cut Thor’s throat, and who knew what he would do to Frigga.

Thor wheezed a sound out of his closed throat, not enough to be a warning as Mogthrasir hissed, “I would have been kind enough to you.” He moved, striking forward at Loki all in a rush.

It should have been no contest, not Loki against the brutal force of a Jotun warrior. But Loki faded to nothing as Mogthrasir slashed at him and, a moment later, there was a soft sound and the smell of burning flesh.

Mogthrasir jerked all over and fell, hitting the ground heavily. Smoke rose from his body. Loki stood beside him, staring down at the corpse with nothing in his expression, the fingers of one hand curled up in agony, his other hand gripping tight at his wrist.

“Loki,” Thor managed to wheeze, the icy grip around his throat finally easing. He pushed and swayed half to his feet, and then Loki was there, pressing a hand to the center of his chest and grunting.

The pain was sudden and crushing, enough to shock every cell in Thor’s body at once, and then it was gone, taking with it the chill and the heaviness in his limbs. He fell against Loki, panting at the sweet air, barely noticing as Loki grabbed his discard cup and poured the contents of his hand into it; the items looked almost like diamonds. “Poison,” Loki scoffed. “They try to kill you with poison.” He made a short, amused sound.

“He must not have known that was your purview,” Thor said, the words steadier as his breath came back.

Loki snorted and demanded, “Are you alright?” He gripped at Thor’s shoulders and tried to look at him.

“Fine,” Thor said, flexing his fingers just to be sure, and marshalling a smile. “I am fine. Are you?” He caught sight of Loki’s hand, the skin there covered in ugly red lines.

Loki only said, “Fire was likely to be the fastest way to put him down.” It did not answer Thor’s question, but he knew well enough that he would get no better answer. Already Loki shifted his hand and the injuries disappeared, masked behind one glamour or another. “We will need to take this to Gangr, immediately, with luck, we can use this to--”

Thor grabbed him and pulled him closer, kissing him as the last of the certainty of death faded away. “We should--” Loki said, against his mouth, gesturing at something beyond the circle of where they touched.

“In a moment,” Thor said, and deepened the kiss, his blood high with the thought that anyone would try to take this from him, that it sometimes seemed that everyone in the world was trying to take this from him.

Loki made a soft sound, gripping him back, and for a moment whatever schemes and plots must come next were set to the side.

#

Brunnhilde did not anticipate being called from her sleep, the tangle of Ashlan’s limbs, with a rough shake. She blinked up into the face of one of her sisters - for a moment her mind jerked unpleasantly, prepared to believe that she had fallen into an old nightmare - but Dagmar said, “Wake up, I think there’s going to be a fight.”

“What?” Brunnhilde demanded, disentangling herself from Ashlan, who was rising as well, blinking away the wisps of sleep. Brunnhilde reached for her sword. “Why? With who?”

Dagmar - a tall, spare woman with red hair that insisted on going everywhere - handed her a boot. “Some Jotun tried to poison the king,” she said.

“What?”

“He’s fine,” Dagmar said. “But he and his betrothed are on the way to the main dining hall and-”

“By Odin’s ugly, one-eyed face,” Brunnhilde swore, jerking to her feet, pulling on her armor with hurried hands. “Go to them. Now! I will follow as quickly as I can.” She could just imagine how well this situation would go. She turned back to the bed, her heart lurching. “Stay here. If everything goes wrong, call to Heimdall, he can--”

“I will not,” Ashlan said, tugging her armor into place with a determined look.

“Ashlan--”

“You cannot fear losing me again forever,” Ashlan said, cupping Brunnhilde’s face and leaning close to kiss her, quick and soft. “Come, we must go. Our sovereigns need us.”

Brunnhilde bit back the further protests on her tongue. They would land on deaf ears, and she knew that. She scowled, though, marching out into the hall and hurrying towards the dining chamber, where she could hear the sounds of feasting.

They arrived by a side passage, the pair of them, and yet were ignored by the throngs of Jotun sitting in the hall. They were all more interested in Thor and in Loki, who walked into the middle of the meeting of Jotun, past the long dining tables, to the spot where Gangr sat eating. There he bent over and poured a mess of diamond-bright crystals onto the stone in front of Gangr’s bowl.

Gangr froze, even as those around him exclaimed, reaching for weapons. Brunnhilde swore under her breath, moving into the room, between two tables full of Jotun who were no longer ignoring her. They cast her strange looks. She counted the seconds until they rose and began taking umbrage.

Loki stood staring down at Gangr, hands empty, Thor hovering a step behind him. Gangr reached out and grabbed the arm of the nearest of his fellows, restraining him as he moved to lunge over the table. Gangr asked, his words clipped, “What is this?”

“I am surprised you don’t recognize it,” Loki said, smiling. “The Tears of Myram are only found on Jotunheim. Warriors used to forge them into their blades, I believe.”

“I know what they are,” Gangr said. “Where did you find them?”

Loki hummed, reaching out and lifting one of the tiny gems, rolling it back and forth in his fingers. “In the blood of a member of my household,” he said, leaning a hip against the table, looking as though they were not teetering on the edge of the sudden destruction of their work towards peace. “It seems someone put them in a bottle of wine and offered it freely.”

For a moment, none of the Jotun spoke. Brunnhilde could almost sense them looking over the group gathered around, looking for the missing. When Gangr spoke, his voice was a terrible rasp, “Your daughter--”

“Unhurt,” Loki said. “The assassin failed.”

Gangr stared at him, his expression frozen somewhere between disbelief and horror. “How?” he asked.

Loki shrugged. “I am a powerful sorcerer,” he said, and looked across the room, a shadow crossing his eyes. “And the plan was poorly thought through. This kind of decision making is the reason I was able to single-handedly throw your world into disarray, you know.”

Brunnhilde read the stiff anger on Gangr’s expression. She wondered if Loki had finally pushed too far, but then Gangr looked to the side, his jaw flexing. “Where is the attempted assassin? They will be--”

“Dead,” Loki said. “You can find the body in my rooms. Now, while we are all here together, are there any others who would like to try?” The gathered Jotun stared at him, and for the first time Brunnhilde thought she saw fear in their eyes. “Good,” he said, into the silence. “You have nothing I desire for a weregild. However, I believe that, for the sake of our continued relations, we ought to sign the treaty between our peoples. Now. With a brief addendum detailing the consequences should anything befall my betrothed or our children.”

Brunnhilde held her breath, sure that he asked too much. But Gangr nodded, standing with a hard scowl. “Bring the treaty,” he barked to one of the guards standing near his back. “We sign it now.” He glanced back at Loki. “And then I think it would be for the best if you left us, for some time.”

Loki’s smile was a passing flash, barely seen from Brunnhilde’s position as he slightly inclined his head. “Of course,” he said. “I have a wedding to get to, anyway.”

#

Thor did not expect to sign the treaty with the Jotun at all. He fully believed something would go wrong at the last second, but it did not. They brought out the papers and spread them out on the hastily cleared table. Cups and plates were used to hold the document down as scribes hastily added Loki’s demanded additions to the end.

It was not the document that Thor thought the Jotun would have argued for, if given more time. But they yielded to it; they were afraid, Thor realized, that if they did not Loki would leave, taking his bloodline with him.

Gangr signed, the runes of his name flaring with blue light as he put them to the paper. He handed the stylus across to Loki, who took it with a strange look in his eyes before offering it out to Thor. Thor balked, and Loki raised an eyebrow. “You are the King of New Asgard,” he said, something chiding in his tone.

“And I’ll sign it,” Thor said, his tongue clumsy around the words. He no longer felt the effects of the poison, had not since Loki drew it from him, but his heart raced nonetheless. Brunnhilde held Frigga by their sides, the babe grouchy and tired-eyed. But it was important she be here for this moment, even if she would never remember.

This treaty secured half her heritage. She must be able to say she was there, someday.

He shook the thoughts away and gestured at the paper. “After you do.”

He watched Loki’s pupils widen, his expression doing something complicated and barely visible before he turned back to the paper. He put his mark across the parchment and his fingers felt cold as ice - as the heart of Jotunheim itself - when Thor took the stylus from him and bent to emblazon his name across the treaty.

“There,” he said, dizzy with the belief that he would wake up. Surely this was a dream. Surely they had not managed to end this terrible conflict between their people, not when it had stretched for so long.

“It is done,” Gangr said, his expression as dumbstruck as Thor felt. Then he looked up, some dazed sort of joy in his eyes, and said, “And now you should go, Restorer. Let me bring our court to order for your return.”

Loki inclined his head, no sign of a smile on his mouth for once. “Very well,” he said, and turned, his eyes finding Thor’s. “We should go outside before you take us back to New Asgard.”

Thor could only muster a nod in return. He kept waiting to wake up. He kept waiting for someone else to try to kill him. But the Jotun watched in silence as they exited the dining chamber, before climbing to their feet and following them out, to stand upon the snow under a grey sky.

The snowflakes that floated downwards were fat and dry. The landed on Frigga’s face and did not melt against her blue skin. Thor gazed down at her, his daughter, a child of two worlds and, now, the heir apparent to both, and felt his chest ache with a deep joy and complicated sadness.

Loki touched his arm, then, his skin a darker blue than their daughter’s, and said, “Take us home.”

Thor curled an arm around him and called the Bifrost.

The Bifrost transported them across all the empty space to New Asgard, depositing them in the square in front of the royal quarters. Thor looked around, breathing in the sweet air and feeling warmth on his skin, and wondered how much had changed in their brief days away.

Loki wore a strange expression as they landed, his skin fading, but before Thor could ask if he were well, Heimdall stepped out of one of the surrounding buildings. He wore a strange expression himself, even as he asked, “It went well?”

Thor nodded. “As well as we could hope,” he said. “There is a treaty between our peoples. Jotunheim is no longer in danger of thaw.” There was more, regarding the lifting of blockades around Jotunheim, but it could wait. “What did we miss?”

Heimdall’s expression turned into a frown. “Come inside,” he said. “And I will explain everything.”

#

Returning to New Asgard was a soothing balm to Brunnhilde. She’d forgotten, in her long, involuntary exile, how her world felt. New Asgard brought back all of those memories, and she was grateful to be returned to the sweet, warm air, even if they were almost immediately shut up indoors to hear whatever news Heimdall had to share.

“There has been contact from Midgard,” Heimdall said, frowning as he led them into an open, spacious room that Brunnhilde was sure had not existed before they left.

“Oh?” Loki asked. “Would they like a treaty as well?”

Heimdall cut him a sideways look and sighed. “Perhaps. I don’t think they know what they want, but they have requested to speak with you. Both of you.”

Thor frowned. “How did they request this?”

Heimdall shrugged. “The one they left behind, the one they call Strange, they left him a communications device. He gave me the message.”

Thor sighed, then, pacing over to look out of the window. The skies above were still clear, so he could not be too concerned with this request. He said, “Who requested to speak with us?”

“A council made up of leaders of their different countries,” Heimdall said. “As near as I understand it.”

Thor frowned out at the sky beyond, saying nothing. Loki drifted towards him, leaning against the wall near his side and looking, briefly, tired. He said, “We’re going to have to talk to them sooner or later. Or they’re just going to show up one day. Probably past the point of wanting to chat.”

Thor grimaced, the expression quickly hidden. “I should go,” he said, glancing towards Loki. “You stay here, make sure--”

“They request to speak with you both,” Heimdall said, grimacing at the sharp look Thor shot him.

“We both went to Jotunheim,” Loki said, his expression beyond Brunnhilde’s ability to decipher. He reached out to touch Thor’s arm, and she wondered if Thor was aware of the way he leaned into the touch, as though hopelessly drawn to it. “I know how much you value Midgard, we should--”

“Not as much as I value you,” Thor said, and then seemed to realize they were not alone, a muscle in his jaw jumping as he tensed. “They tried to kill you.”

Loki shrugged. “So many people do,” he said. “And I was weak then. If we are to make friends - ” he snorted, “-then we must help them feel comfortable. Let us go and settle this, before the problem becomes larger.”

For a moment, Thor said nothing, only staring. He nodded, finally, and turned his face towards Heimdall without looking away from Loki. “Very well,” he said. “We will plan to go handle this diplomatic discussion. Find out if Strange intends to return with us, or if he is staying here.”

#

In the end, they received word that Strange would return with them to Midgard, with the promise extracted that he might return with them, as well. Thor accepted the message with a frown. His emotions sat heavy in his chest, the thought of a return to Midgard tasted like ash upon his tongue, when once he had greatly enjoyed the planet and its charms.

He wandered in the dark paths of his thoughts about Midgard for a time, startled when a careful touch slid up his arm. He glanced over at Loki, who sank down to sit beside him on their mattress.

Thor glanced over at him. “I cannot convince you to stay here?”

Loki snorted. “They have no reason to wish me dead now,” he said, shrugging. Thor wondered about that, considering the long shadow of the attack on their city of New York. “Besides, what if someone tries to poison you again?”

Thor had no answer for that, though he did not believe the Midgardians would direct harm towards him. They’d always been a welcoming folk. To him. He frowned, swallowing the bitterness in his mouth. Loki sighed, “And Frigga?”

That was a fresh nightmare stirring in Thor’s mind. He felt the weight of her well-being like a stone around his neck, a constant pressure on his thoughts. “She will come with us,” he said. “She must be with one of us.”

He could not countenance leaving her alone. Not until she had some way to defend herself. And even then…

Loki nodded, flicking his fingers and dissolving his armor. “Do you think every day will feel as long as this one?”

Thor tried to concentrate on the question, but the sudden revelation of so much skin waylaid him. He hummed, gladly setting aside the darkness of his thoughts as he leaned over and down, pressing a kiss to the ball of Loki’s shoulder. His skin was cool and soft, and he dragged in a delightful little inhale of breath at Thor’s touch.

Thor kissed across the line of his shoulder, laid a kiss against his neck, his jaw. Loki turned towards him, their noses brushing as Thor sought out his mouth and took a kiss. Loki shivered against him, hands coming up to tug at Thor’s amor.

Thor sent it away with a thought, more than happy to fall together, skin to skin, the following day’s worries falling out of his mind all at once as Loki shifted around, straddling him, dark hair falling around them as they sank to the bed.

#

Nebula woke from sleep suddenly, a data crawler throwing an alert in her subconscious mind to rouse her. She sat bolt upright on her mattress, swung her legs down, and marched out of her room and over to the other sleeping chamber in the small abode she currently shared with Romanoff and Rogers.

Rogers opened the door after a moment, his hair disheveled. He had removed his shirt. She frowned at him and said, “I have something. News.”

He blinked, sleep draining away from his expression. “About the Stones?”

“No,” she said, details in the report jumping out at her. “It’s about Thor and Loki. They’re coming to Earth.”

Rogers stiffened. Nebula could hear Romanoff stirring in the room, the sound of fabric against skin. He asked, “Why are they coming?”

Nebula scanned the information. “They were asked here by an organization called the United Defense Force.”

Romanoff leaned against the doorway. The shirt she wore was far too big for her small frame. She said, frowning, “That name has come up a few times.” Nebula nodded. They’d found no hard proof that the United Defense Force had the Infinity Stones, but they certainly seemed to have gotten very close to them, if nothing else.

“Where are they supposed to meet up?” Rogers asked.

“I’m not familiar with the location,” Nebula said. “I can tell you the coordinates.”

#

They spent less than a day on New Asgard before they gathered once more in the courtyard for another journey. Brunnhilde tugged her armor to order as Thor exchanged words with Heimdall. It seemed mad to her that she’d spent so many years trapped on one world, only to now bounce from one to the next in an instant.

She looked over the ranks of her sisters and found them ready to go, despite their brief respite. Strange stood to one side, dark bags under his eyes that said he had perhaps been spending more time studying than sleeping since he arrived on their world. Loki waited close to Thor, his attention on Frigga in his arms, the rest of the world shuffled to the side.

They all drifted in towards Thor when he finished his conversation, which seemed mostly to consist of assuring Heimdall that, yes, they would be back in time for the wedding to proceed on schedule.

Traveling by the Bifrost was a strange curiosity. Brunnhilde had traveled the rainbow paths once before her long exile, on Odin’s orders, to a world only Heimdall could reach.

She thought Thor did it differently than the Gate Keeper. They did not land so softly at their destinations, but they made it.

She took her first breath of Midgardian air, looking around at the world. The air tasted similar to the Grandmaster’s world, without the clean freshness of New Asgard that she knew would fade with time. The gravity was slightly different, less, she thought, testing her movement as her sisters spread out to guard the royal family.

They stood on sand, endless sand. Brunnhilde squinted into the blinding light beating down on them and asked, “Are you sure we landed in the right place?”

Thor frowned. He had a hand on Loki, she noticed. His other hand gripped his great axe. “These are the coordinates you gave me,” he said to Strange, who nodded.

“Yes,” Strange said, stretching out a hand with a frown. “But something…” he swayed, then, and fell over with no warning. He was a tall man and the sound of his body hitting the ground set a chill in Brunnhilde’s chest.

She took a step towards Thor, even as she felt something cold running up the back of her neck, into her head. “Get us out,” Loki snapped, and she could see Thor trying to call the Bifrost, but the rainbow path refused to coalesce.

She fell to her knees, dizzy, and heard Loki swear in words she did not know. He scrambled away from Thor, falling to his knees by Strange and, bizarrely, placing Frigga on the mortal’s chest.

Brunnhilde fell sideways, trying to resist the impossible weight of gravity and failing. Panic tightened her throat. The loss of control over her body was horrific as few things in her life had been. She stared at the sideways world, unable to stir. Thor was standing, barely, by leaning against his axe. Loki knelt over Strange, his hands extended out, his eyes rolled back in his head.

Brunnhilde swore then that she saw Strange and Frigga disappear, blinking out of existence, but it was difficult to be sure, because there was a long crack of sound and then darkness, rising behind her eyes and dragging her down and down and down.

#

Tony was just dragging himself out of bed, sometime around mid-morning, when alarms started ringing around the room. He swore, all the final wisps of sleep dashed out of his mind - taking with them the aching memories of his latest nightmare - and demanded, “Friday, what’s going on?”

“You have guests,” Friday said, her voice clear and crisp. “They are in the lounge area.”

Tony activated his suit as he walked forward. “Pepper?”

“Safe,” Friday said. “She left for a breakfast meeting an hour ago.” Tony exhaled, relaxing further as the suit flowed over his skin. “Additionally, I don’t think that our visitors would pose a threat to her. Or you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Tony asked, deciding to take the window instead of the stairs, rising through the air to the penthouse level. He rarely went up there, anymore. Too many bad memories lingered, most prominent among them sipping a drink while trying to keep Loki distracted long enough for someone to do something during the invasion of New York. “Why’s that?”

He stepped through into the room out of the air even as he asked, and found the answer to his own question.

Strange lay on his back, near the spot in the floor where Loki had once lain insensate after his run-in with the Hulk. He seemed to be unconscious, which was startling enough on its own. Worse was the squirming bundle on his chest, just beginning to sniffle and cry.

“Friday,” Tony said, retracting his helmet as he crossed the room, crouching by Strange and, yes, Frigga. He’d recognize the girl anywhere. He kept seeing her tiny face in his nightmares. “You want to tell me what the hell’s going on?”

“I would if I could,” she said, while Tony reached out and felt for Strange’s pulse - there and strong. He shook Strange, and Frigga slid, bursting into wailing tears. Tony reached to touch her, and she grabbed at his fingers. “Sir,” Friday said, as Tony carefully lifted the child. “I think I may have some bad news for you.”

The distraction of finding Thor and Loki’s kid in his house was tangling up his thoughts. He shook it aside. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I am picking up some strange chatter about what I believe to be a deployment of troops.”

Tony froze, holding the squirming baby, a bit unsure about exactly how he was even supposed to do it, and asked, “A deployment of troops to where?”

“Here, sir,” Friday said. “There are messages saying an alien signal was sent to your location. They are coming to… assess it.”

#

Thor should have known not to trust to happiness, not even for a second.

Life had been nothing but one nightmare after another for so long. But he had thought it was past, that with his work and Loki’s they had moved beyond the tribulations of their tormented history, into a new world with their renewed people.

But everything had gone wrong once more, starting with dark whispers of warning delivered by Agent Romanoff regarding developments on Earth, so many days ago. He should have listened to her more carefully. He wished he had.

It was too late to go back and change things, to take seriously the threat the folk of Midgard might be. They had not dared attack New Asgard - not yet, Thor thought, in a wash of sick clarity, but now that he was gone they might do anything - instead luring them away, to a place where they were unprepared to defend themselves.

He did not recall all that had happened. He remembered pain, a sick, overwhelming sense of it, and crushing weight forcing him to the ground as his thoughts turned to Loki and Frigga.

He had not been able to reach them. The thought dragged a strangled cry from his throat. He could only imagine what was being done to them, what had already been done to them. Had he not sworn on his very life he would allow no more harm to come to his family? The words tasted of ash in his mouth, echoing in his head to remind him of his failure.

He had not been able to reach his child. He had left Loki to face whatever horrors awaited alone, and now they left him in the dark, chained at his neck and wrists with some strange, burning metal that he could not break, no matter how he strained against it.

His eyes had long grown used to the dark, but there was nothing to see but more dark. He could not turn his head to either side. The thick collar around his neck prevented it and bit into his jaw and shoulders. The muscles in his chest and back, all down his arms, burned with the strain of pulling against the shackles that kept his arms cruelly extended.

His knees ached, resting against the floor. They wouldn’t even allow him the pride of standing to await whatever foul fate they’d planned for him. He knew he deserved whatever they did. His failures had to be answered. But he hoped he would be able to kill some of them first.

He hoped they would not merely leave him to rot here, starving in his own filth.

He hoped--

Light flooded shocking into the room, derailing his thoughts and burning his eyes. He squinted against it, hissing, refusing to close his eyes all the way. The white brightness of it stung like fire; he snarled into it, “I’m going to--”

“There’s something we wanted to show you,” the voice came from behind him. Thor tried to twist automatically, unsure how anyone had gotten there, and caught on the chains. He could not identify the speaker. Their voice was strange and rasping, unpleasant to listen to. Nothing here was pleasant.

“The only thing I want to see is your broken body at my feet,” he snapped, holding onto the anger in his chest for all it was worth.

The unseen man chuckled, an almost clucking sound. “Then this will be a disappointing day for you,” he said. Thor could feel the stranger, standing directly behind his shoulder, the heat of his body brushing. They’d stripped Thor’s armor away, left him with nothing but his skin and sweat. “Before we begin,” he said, “there are a few things you should know. First of all, you can call me… Agent White”

“Where is Loki?” Thor asked, misliking intensely the direction this conversation seemed determined to head. “Where is my daughter?”

White tsked at him, as though he were a wayward pupil. “In due time,” he said. “We have questions for you.”

“If you’ve hurt them--”

White hurt him, then. He did not know how. The pain came from everywhere, from the air around him and the air in his lungs. When it passed, he hung limp for a moment, panting for breath and resisting the urge to scream.

“Listen,” White said, patient. “We have questions for you. You can answer us and make this easy.”

Thor spat on the ground. “I won’t tell you anything,” he said, and laughed, the sound breaking to pieces inside his chest.

He felt White move and strove ever harder to catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of his eyes. White stayed just beyond his vision. “We thought you might say that,” White said. “So we set up an alternative approach, just to see if anyone else might be more interested in sharing.”

Thor’s breath caught at the words. “Loki,” he said, panting it. “He lives? You will--”

“For now,” White said. “But he’s not answering us, either.”

Thor reached for the force of the storm with all of his might and got nothing in return. It was like beating upon a closed door. He growled, “If you’ve hurt--”

There was pain, again. Eventually it stopped, leaving his head ringing and the taste of blood in his mouth. “I think,” White said, “that you are suffering under some misapprehensions. You’re in no position to threaten or issue orders. You will answer our questions, or we will hurt you until you do.”

“You will all die,” Thor told White, blinking sweat out of his eyes, barely feeling the sting of it.

White sighed. “Perhaps,” he said, “what you need is a demonstration.” Thor opened his mouth again and felt the words die on his tongue. The blinding white light in front of him changed, shifting to something that allowed him to see what was going on in the space before him.

He cried out as realization grounded itself down through his bones. Loki waited before him in a room, dark and organic. All of his armor had been stripped away, his scars dark in the greenish light. He lay on a curved table that bent him backwards, exposing his stomach and chest, the lone lines of his thighs. There were marks across his skin, purple, black, and angry red. Smears of blood spread like ugly shadows over his body. His hands were bound above his head, his hair in disorder, and his expression was terrible and distant. And he was not alone. There were two other figures in the room.

One figure circled him, impossible and terrible and familiar. Thor knew the face as well as his own, the fall of dark hair, the sharp smile, the flashing eyes. The creature looked as Loki had, once, years ago, in his mad service to the Titan Thanos. He looked corpse pale, with reddened skin around his blue eyes, his mouth pulled constantly into a snarling smile.

The second figure Thor recognized even better. He saw the features each time he looked into a mirror. But there was something wrong with his double, beyond the fact that he wore full armor and moved like a predator. It’s hands, he realized after a moment, were bloody red.

Thor yelled, crying out, and was ignored. “They can’t hear you,” White said, sounding pleased. “You may only listen, and watch. And when you are ready to stop it, you can answer my questions.”

Thor could find no reply to that, no reply as his double drew to a stop, close to Loki’s side. Loki flinched, noticeable in the tightening of the skin around his eyes and the shift in his hair. The thing wearing Loki’s face bent closer, its mouth pulled into a sharp, cruel smile as it said, “I can see that you need a break. Why don’t we just return to our previous topic of discussion for a while? Let the questions rest?”

Loki said nothing. His gaze did not shift from the middle-distance. He looked… terribly used to what was happening to him. The thought soured Thor’s gut yet further, adding to the horror of the fact that he could not see Frigga.

He startled when the doppelganger began to speak once more. “He’s just using you, as the Asgardians have always wished to use you. You know that. You’re useful now. You brought back the dead for him. You gave him an heir. He doesn’t love you.”

It was not the tact Thor would have imagined that these creatures take. They had only inflicted pain on him, after all, and surely they had to know that Loki would not---

Loki, the true Loki, jerked once, violently. He looked stricken, as though someone had reached into his chest and sunk fingers into his heart. He kept his lips pressed into a thin line, but he curled his fingers - stretched so far above his head - into claws.

“How could he?” The doppelganger continued in a slow, even voice. “Don’t you remember everything you’ve done? Everything you are? He’s a king and you’re an unwanted bastard child, left for the cold, for your enemies to do with what they wanted. You betrayed him. So many times. You know you’re nothing but a useful beast. A pliant body. How could you ever be anything more than that?”

Thor struggled against the bonds holding him, roaring in a fury that did not seem to reach Loki, where he stared at nothing, his eyes grown terribly bright, wet, as the thing with his face leaned close to his ear.

“The Aesir only tolerate you because you brought them back. And they’ll forget that soon enough. You’ll only remain useful while you keep the Jotun placated. And they don’t need you for that, really. Not with Frigga.”

Loki’s eyes widened. He seemed not to be breathing. “They’ll take her away from you,” the thing said, sounding almost apologetic. “Or he’ll get another on you and take that one. Give her to me, instead. Give her to me, before he can take her. I will make sure she never experiences pain. Or loss.”

The thing that looked like Loki reached out, brushing Loki’s face, and Thor bellowed, the sound torn directly out of his gut at the sight of that cold, vicious smile.

Loki twisted his face away and panted, “No.” His voice sounded strange and shredded. Broken. The thing with his face recoiled at the sound of it, a flash of confusion crossing its stolen features.

“What?”

“No,” Loki panted again. “You… lie. He loves me.”

The thing threw its head back and laughed, mockery in each echo of sound. Thor’s double joined it a moment later, and Loki jerked bodily against the bonds holding him down. “No one loves you,” it said. “You know that. You are forever unwanted, unloved, un—”

“He does,” Loki insisted, shaking his head, blinking his eyes for the first time in an age. “I gave him an heir. Brought back his people.” Something in Thor’s chest ached, even then, in the middle of this mad nightmare, to hear such reasons given for his affections, as though they would not have been there anyway, as though they had not endured through so many ages of their lives, as though he had not loved Loki even standing on Stark’s hideous tower, feeling the blade of a knife slide between his ribs.

“And you think that’s enough?” the thing with Thor’s face sneered. “Such a paltry offering—” Thor yelled once more, the agony of being unable to do anything to stop these lies, these lies delivered with his own mouth, too much to bear. He surged and struggled against the bonds holding him back, and got nowhere and nothing.

“It is for him,” Loki said, his quiet voice cutting across Thor’s ragged cries. He blinked rapidly, as though trying to clear something from his eyes. The skin around his eyes began to stain blue.

“You are lying to yourself,” the thing with Loki’s face hissed, grabbing his hair and wrenching his head to the side, the first time it had demonstrated violence. “Like the foolish child you are. You are only loved as long as you are useful. When your use wears out he will set you aside. You will be left alone again in the cold, while he picks some small, soft woman to warm his bed. Do not be a fool. Act now. Hurt him before he hurts you.”

Loki’s fingers shook, for a moment the blue faded, and then he took a wet, hitching breath and steadied. “No,” he said, his voice wrecked and broken. The blue spread, back towards his temples and something rose from his skin, something dark and shimmering, a fog bleeding out of his eyes.

“Stop!” the creature snarled, twisting its fingers tighter into Loki’s hair, shaking him viciously. It gestured at the thing with Thor’s face, and Thor had the fresh horror of watching himself fit his fingers around Loki’s neck. He ignored the pain, the agony he bought by struggling against the bonds unto the point that he thought he might break his own bones, tear muscle from tendon. And it was not enough. “You know I am right. You are a broken thing. Ruined. He will turn against you, you—”

“Doesn’t matter,” Loki gasped. The darkness hovered around his face, tendrils creeping down, moving towards his ears, his nose, his mouth. And Loki moved one of his arms, right through the bonds that held it, jerking lighting fast to close his fingers around the dark, shimmering thing, closing it into a cage, where it writhed, caught in a jail of skin and bone. “I love him.” He wept, still, but the anguish had left his face as he rolled his eyes up towards his double, and said, cold and sharp, “And now you will leave me go.”

The thing stumbled a step back, it’s form wavering, wearing a terror on its face that it hurt Thor to gaze upon, even knowing it was not really Loki. “Stop that,” it said, it’s voice changing in pitch, “Make him stop that. You don’t--”

“Did you think those words would stop me?” Loki asked, tilting his head to the side, ignoring the hand around his throat, almost curious as he watched the thing in his hand struggle desperately.

“They hurt you!” the doppelganger cried out. “We saw it, you believe them.”

Loki shrugged, something terrible in his easy acceptable. He pulled his legs up and reached out with his other hand, gripping the arm of Thor’s double and squeezing. “Hurt has never stopped me. And I know what you are, now,” Loki said, and his smile cut across his face like a knife. The Thor he held struggled. Some blackness spread up his arm, beneath the skin. Thor yelled himself hoarse, mad with relief and the fresh fear of not knowing for certain that whatever was going on would work.

“You should have never dared enter my head,” Loki said, and closed his hand, then, crushing the shadows in his fingers, and the creature with his face screamed, terribly and brutally, and--

And Thor’s cell went blinding white once more. “No!” he cried out. “Show me him once more, I--”

Pain flooded back, brutal and overwhelming, but Thor set his teeth against it. They had been in Loki’s head, doing something to him. He wondered if he did not have unwelcome visitors in his own mind. He tried to turn his thoughts inward, but the pain edged out all reason and he did not know what to look for, what to fight against.

He could hear things, in the bright light. The sounds of a battle. Loki crying out, screaming. Laughter. He tried to tell himself it could not be real. They were in Loki’s mind. In his mind, probably, but--

He cried out, the sound ragged in his throat, and then the world shifted, turning abruptly on its axis, the bright light fading, replaced by a shadow leaning over him. Hands pressed to either side of his head, cool and familiar.

He blinked upward, gazed into Loki’s face, pale and drawn but not wracked with agony. Loki said, “It’s not real. Whatever they’re making you see, it isn’t real, Thor, can you hear me?”

Behind him - through him - Thor heard terrible, wet sounds. But they were fading away, more and more as he searched Loki’s expression. “Yes,” he rasped, “what--”

And then Loki grunted, his fingertips pressing in tight to Thor’s head, and Thor sagged, the bonds around his arms just gone, leaving him to drop. Loki caught at him on the way down, holding him upright as Thor panted against his shoulder, rasping, “I saw--”

“Lies,” Loki said, “everything you saw was a lie.”

The relief of it, the surety in Loki’s voice, broke some last well of resistance in Thor’s thoughts, and he gripped Loki tighter, all the the fear and anger pouring out of him, desperate for some kind of relief, and feeling the storm answer him, finally.

He heard the crashing of the storm overhead and smelled burning metal, close by, closing his eyes and pressing his face against Loki’s hair as the lightning danced from his skin. The rumbles faded, eventually, leaving a ringing silence behind and the distant sound of alarms. Thor breathed in the smell of him, felt the cool press of his body - alive and undamaged - and asked, “How?”

Loki stiffened against him. “The Stones,” he said. “It is the only explanation. They took the Gauntlet. And it seems they’ve been busy.”

The full weight of the situation came down on him, standing in the cold, metallic room, every inch of his flesh aching, his throat raw from crying out. They had been betrayed, betrayed and with their own minds turned against them.

He gritted his jaw, lifting his head at last to look around. The room had once been white-walled. Presumably, it had once had a ceiling. A hole had burned through above them, revealing several levels above and the grey sky outside. The walls themselves were burned; some had holes burned through them. The floor had fared little better.

“I think it’s safe to say that they know we’re no longer contained,” Loki said, gazing around the wreckage. He had been unharmed by the expulsion of lightning and fury, safe against Thor’s body. “Do you feel better?”

“No,” Thor said, his gaze settling, finally, on the only other figure in the room. The man was dressed as a soldier. He lay under some rumble, with fracturing, reddened burns stretching up his neck and across his face. He was watching them, trying to reach his weapon where it had fallen out of his reach.

Thor strode across to him, kicked the weapon further aside, and asked, “Who brought us here?”

The soldier glared up at him, blood on his mouth and some mix of hatred and fear in his eyes. Thor scowled, “I said--”

“I believe,” Loki interrupted, stepping by and kneeling by the soldier, who flinched back with nowhere to go. “That I might have better luck.” He leaned closer and asked, “Where are the Stones kept?”

The man’s eyes glazed over. He relaxed, all at once, with a strange, wet sucking sound from some hidden wound. “In the central command chamber,” he said, softly.

Loki nodded, a smile alighting on his face. “Excellent,” he said. “And where is that?”

#

Nebula sat in the back of the Earthling craft she’d been using to travel around the world with Rogers and Romanoff. They’d scrambled into action after she reported Thor and Loki’s imminent arrival. Their movements had become more hurried when she picked up chatter about some kind of mission success.

They’d headed towards the coordinates she found, half a world away, and been doomed to watch the time drag by as they traveled.

They found no sign of much of anything upon their arrival. There was a strange, knotted pattern burnt onto the ground. “They did come here, then,” Rogers said, scuffing it with his foot.

“Well, they’re not here now,” Romanoff added, turning in a slow circle. “So where are they?”

That had been hours ago, before they started scoring the surrounding area, looking for any sign of life. The absence seemed almost too perfect. Surely no spot on even this world could be so devoid of any sign of life.

Nebula frowned, shifting the search parameters of her scans and pausing as her ambient sensors detected rapid changes in the air pressure and temperature outside. “We should land,” she said, the sheer size of the storm rapidly building overhead jolting through her. “We should land now.”

“What?” Rogers asked, as the first lightning strike roared down from the sky, followed in short order by a dozen more. He cursed, and the next moments were little more than a controlled crash as hailstones the size of Nebula’s head battered at them and the sky turned to a blinding sheet of white.

The storm grew more restrained after a moment, leaving them to catched their breath in the heavy rain, waiting for their hearing to return from the world-shaking thunder. “Well,” Romanoff said, unbuckling from her seat. “I’d say we found them.”

Nebula nodded and pointed forward. “Over there.”

Rogers twisted back to look at her, “Why there?”

She smiled without amusement. “Because that’s where the middle of the storm is.”

#

According to the guard who had answered Loki’s questions with nothing behind his eyes, the central command chamber was three levels down and, roughly, to the northeast. According to him, the Valkyries had been taken to a different location. According to him, they had not been able to capture Frigga or Strange.

Thor felt some relief at that, at least. He held onto it as they traveled through the compound through the holes blown in the walls with lightning and down the halls.

There were barred gates, here and there. They were easy enough to be rid of; Thor broke them apart without breaking his stride. There were guards, many of them, clad in the black armor that Midgardians often preferred and armed with weapons that appeared of Midgardian make but did not operate properly.

The first crimson shot winged their way left a burning hole in the wall at their back and the smell of burning hair by Thor’s ear. It would have struck him had Loki not pulled him impatiently to the side a second before.

“The Stones,” Loki said, like an explanation. “They will not be normal weapons.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Thor said, because somewhere, Frigga was out there. Because he felt the deep exhaustion of straining fruitlessly against the bonds they’d trapped him in. Because he was angry, deep and truly furious.

“Then by all means,” Loki said, peering around the corner where the soldiers approached, “clear us a path.”

Thor was happy to oblige. The hall smelled of lightning and burned flesh when they walked down it a moment later.

Sometimes the world slipped out of focus as they cut their way through the compound, moving to someplace else, to screams, people begging for his help, and then the brush of Loki’s fingers against his temple would bring him back to the present.

“Why doesn’t it affect you?” Thor asked, the second time he shook the surety that they were floating in deep space, suffocating, out of his thoughts.

Loki shrugged, mouth quirking below flat eyes. “Just lucky. I think that’s where we’re going.” He gestured down the hall to yet one more door, shut and locked tight. Thor glared at it. “Probably guards inside. Waiting for us.”

Thor nodded back, letting electricity build in his skin. “Are you ready?”

“Do it.” The doors melted on their hinges, what pieces of them that were not thrown backwards into the command center. People cried out in alarm. Bolts of red energy shot back out at them, fired either blindly or poorly.

Thor had spent so much of his life on one battlefield or another. It was the work of a moment to follow the trajectories of the shots back into the room, picking unseen targets all in a line and extending a hand.

The blaster fire stopped with the fading of the electric-white light. A moment later, the soft thump of bodies hitting the ground, one after another, floated out. “Sounds clear,” Thor decided, and walked forward, wreathing his form in lightning, just in case any remained in the room to oppose them.

He stepped over the door’s broken threshold, into a cavernous space filled with Midgardian machines and monitors. Many of them flickered uselessly, now. Bodies slumped across the floor, smoke rising from them. He looked across the ruin of it, feeling, for a moment, sick with the waste of life.

And then Loki said, “Here.” Thor turned to find him deeper into the room, near the center of it, standing before some machine that rose from floor to ceiling, humming with power. Multicolored lights pulsed around it, and, in the center, connected to it with a number of wires and braces, was a band of damaged metal with four gems set into it.

“Their sorcerer took back his Stone,” Loki said, raising a hand, fingers spread, and cocking his head to the side.

“What are they doing with them?” Thor asked, scowling. He had not thought about the Stones or the Gauntlet, not after Thanos fell. His thoughts had been busy with other concerns, and he had thought Rogers and Stark would… do something with it.

“Defending ourselves,” a voice said, and Thor bristled, turning to find more soldiers clogging up the entrance to the room, weapons raised. “Fire at will,” their leader said. Thor stretched a hand out and heard, under the sound of booming thunder, a sudden absence of noise at his back as the machine stopped.

The guns in the soldier’s hands clicked, uselessly. “I think,” Loki said, stepping up beside him and holding out Thor’s axe. The band in was his other hand. “That it’s time for us to go.”

“Shit,” one of the soldiers snarled, tossing the useless weapon to the ground and drawing a second firearm from his hip. He snapped off a shot quickly, giving Thor no more than a heartbeat to grab Loki and turn his shoulders, feeling harsh impacts against his armor and a burning pain in his arm.

He frowned and filled the air with lightning, watching them fly back before he extended a hand upward, sending up lightning and calling yet more down, burning through the layers of building between them and the grey sky.

#

Tony had planned to make a strategic retreat out of the Tower, taking the little princess with him and running. There hadn’t been time, as it turned out. They’d been overrun with goons. He wondered, briefly, holed up in the lounge, what the news thought about all this.

There were just so many of them. And he didn’t want to kill them. He really didn’t. But they wouldn’t talk to him, beyond ordering him to turn over the alien, which…

Which Tony found he couldn’t do, staring down into Frigga’s blue eyes and watching her blow bubbles, apparently unbothered by the fact that she’d just made his day into a nightmare.

In the end, he called for help, knowing it wouldn’t arrive soon enough to somehow end this happily for everyone involved. In the end, he saw no choice but to do everything he could to keep her away from whatever it was all the armored men in his tower wanted.

He set his jaw, and wondered where the hell Thor and Loki were, exactly.

#

Thor landed on flat, uninteresting ground in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing, holding Loki tight to his side. All around them, smoke rose from the ground. Overhead, storm clouds roiled and built into massive grey walls, full of dancing lightning and one flying craft, moving towards them at speed.

Thor had reached the end of his patience. He reached for the storm, intending to blast the ship from the sky, and a voice blared out of the craft, familiar and loud, “Hold your fire, hold your fire, we’re friendlies, we’re here to help!”

For a moment, he considered ignoring it. Someone had betrayed them unto the other Midgardians. He was not in the frame of mind to sit around and find out exactly who it had been.

Loki touched his arm, shaking his head, and Thor shook out his hand, letting the lightning fade away while the craft came in for a landing.

Rogers, Romanoff, and Nebula exited the craft after it landed before them on the broken plain. Thor scowled at them, expecting another betrayal, but they came with no weapons and moved without aggression. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you since you disappeared,” Rogers said, crossing to them with concern written across his expression.

“We didn’t disappear,” Thor offered back, “we were taken, by your people. Taken and tortured.”

Rogers blanched. “That’s not--”

“Enjoyable as the denials and apologies will no doubt be,” Loki said, tone dry, “we don’t have time for this. We need to get Frigga. And we need to rescue our guards; who knows what they will do to the Valkyries, now that we have escaped.”

The ball of dread in Thor’s chest tightened. He had forced aside the worry for Frigga and the others during their time in the compound. It would have served no purpose but distracting him. They’d needed to take the Stones, after all. “You know where she is?”

Loki nodded. “Yes, of course I do. I sent her to someone I knew would look after her. Let’s see if she’s still there.” He closed his eyes, then, hands spread out in front of him. A silver light wound around and around his fingers before coming to hover between his palms. His eyes snapped open, covered in a silver sheen. “Stark Tower,” he said, his voice echoing oddly.

Thor caught the look Rogers and Romanoff exchanged and asked, “What?”

Romanoff answered, glancing at him with a guarded look. “We got a message from Stark that he was having… some trouble. He said he could handle it. Look, I’m sure everything is fine, we’ll take you there now--”

“We can get there more quickly,” Thor said, hot panic running down his spine as he pulled Loki closer once more. He pictured Stark’s grand tower in his mind, drew power close to his skin, and opened the Bifrost.

#

New York would never hold pleasant memories for Thor. He set thoughts of the Chitauri invasion to one side as they landed in the middle of a wide, green space not far from Stark Tower.

People screamed around them, crying out and shrinking back. Thor ignored them. “Hold on,” he said, though Loki already gripped to him. They rode the storm across the city, landing in a clap of thunder before the tower.

The front windows were broken out. There were dark vehicles in the street outside. Above, a helicopter stuck out of one window, the engine still making a low, humming sound. Thor’s heart froze - they had come for her, they’d come for his daughter, they’d -

Loki jerked away from him, sprinting through the open doors without any hesitation. Thor shook aside the clouding fear in his thoughts and ran after him, fresh horror clawing across his skin with each step. He should never have gone to Midgard. He should have dismissed this false offer and let them come. If they’d wanted a war, he should have given it to them.

Loki had gone pale and terrible as death as they found the elevator shaft. No elevator waited inside. Thor grabbed Loki and stepped into it, lightning carrying them up so they could follow the line of light between Loki’s hands.

No sounds came from penthouse level when they landed. Bodies piled outside the elevator door. Thor swallowed, dread making a home inside his chest. “Stark!” he called, fearing that he would get no answer, fearing what he would find as he stepped closer to the room.

Sudden movement deeper into the room drew him up short, along with the slurred voice that called, “Thor? Buddy? That you?”

“Stark!” Thor snarled, hot fury suddenly burning through him. He should have known, he should have known all along that Stark would be at the heart of everything. He leapt forward, lightning sparking around his fists, expecting to find the conclusion of his nightmares and--

And he found Stark, leaning against the side of his bar, out of his armor and bleeding, holding a wound in his gut as his head lolled to one side. He wore a blaster glove on one hand and lifted his head as Thor rounded the side of the counter, something like relief breaking across his face. “Man, are you a sight for sore eyes.”

Loki rushed to his side, looking across Stark and crying out, drawing Thor’s attention to the small figure squirming beneath the ruin of a wall. It wore Stark’s armor, fitted over tiny arms and tiny legs, and Stark gasped, “She’s fine. One-hundred percent okay. I just… tucked her there for safekeeping.”

“Get this off of her,” Loki demanded, lifting Frigga - it had to be Frigga - with desperation in his movements.

“Right, yes,” Stark said, pushing something on the glove he wore. The metal flowed off of Frigga’s body, revealing her red, unhappy face. She screamed her frustration, waving arms and legs around, but she was -- whole, breathtakingly alive.

Thor stumbled, catching himself on the wall as he tripped to Loki and Frigga, looking down into her marvellous, furious face. He touched her, marveling at the warmth of her skin. She lived. She lived, his daughter lived. . “What…?” he managed to ask. “What happened?”

Stark waved a hand. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” he said. “One minute a kid shows up out of nowhere with Strange - he’s over there by the way, unconscious, I think, he took one hell of a crack to the head when he landed, I guess - and the next there are soldiers everywhere.” He broke off to wince, grimacing down at the injury to his gut. “Any, uh, any chance you could take me to, I don’t know, the local hospital?”

Thor blinked, turning away from Loki and Frigga. He stumbled back over to Stark and crouched. Now that he could think, he saw many injuries across the man’s body. “You removed your armor,” he said, unthinking with the cruel shocks of the day.

“I kept the important bits,” Stark said, and waved his hand in a drunken figure-8. “Had to, uh, keep the little princess safe, you know?”

Thor stared at him, so overcome that for a moment he could think of nothing to say. And then he let out a bitter laugh and jerked Stark forward into an embrace. “Thank you,” he said, listening to the miserable, pained groan he got in response.

“Strange lives,” Loki said, then, words clipped and cool. “They will both need medical attention, now. Stark, can you walk?”

Thor released Stark, who nodded and waved a hand in the air. Loki took it and pulled him to his feet, looking across at Thor as he did. “Get Strange.” Something in Thor’s gut still turned over at the sight of Stark so close to Loki, his arm over Loki’s shoulder, the weapon next to Loki’s head--

And then he shook himself, as Loki turned, limping towards the center of the room with Stark in tow. Thor found Strange half-buried below some rubble. He kicked rubbish off and lifted Strange, who groaned. He bore grievous injuries, but if he yet lived, Thor hoped he would continue to do so.

He carried Strange over to where Loki waited, staring out the broken windows as smoke rose into the early morning sky. He would normally hesitate before opening the Bifrost in a building, but he no longer cared.

Their abrupt landing in the center of New Asgard’s city caused no small amount of exclamation. Thor ignored it, turning until he spotted Heimdall, walking towards them with purpose and a grim expression, demanding, “What happened?”

“It’s a long story. He needs healing,” Thor said. Stark lifted his head and waved sloppily, still leaning against Loki’s side.

Heimdall raised an eyebrow. “So do you.”

“I’ll live.” And, standing beneath the clear skies of Asgard, with Loki and Frigga by his side, he exhaled and realized it to be true.

#

The healers took Stark off to work their delicate craft. They insisted on seeing to Thor as well, and, after that, responsibilities fell into place one after another. He shared with Heimdall all that had happened on Midgard. A meeting of their council - such as it was - was called. Plans were made to retrieve the Valkyries remaining on Midgard. According to a transmission Stark made, they were well enough in the care of the people of Wakanda, delivered there by Rogers and Romanoff.

They did not speak of the Infinity Stones in those fraught hours. They mentioned them not at all, until all meetings had been ended, until Frigga had been allowed to fall into deep dreams, until Thor stood alone with Loki in their rooms. He asked, only then, “Where are they?”

“Hidden,” Loki said, dropping to their bed, exhaustion washing suddenly over his expression. “Not as securely as I would like.”

Thor nodded. His arm stung from the ministrations of the healers. Projectile weapons were ever a frustration, especially when it came time to have them removed. His body ached from scalp to the soles of his feet. He saw Loki, face twisted in anguish, everytime he shut his eyes. He said, desperate to think of other things, “We cannot keep them all together.”

Loki sprawled backwards across the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. “Probably not.” He lifted his head after a moment, frowning, and added, “I can feel you staring at me.”

Thor flexed his fingers in and out, mind full of images he did not want. He said, “When they were questioning us… I saw…”

Loki winced, the expression quickly wiped aside. He said, “If they used my face, I am sorry. The Mind Stone is powerful.”

Thor shook his head, but Loki was not looking at him. He dropped onto the bed, stretching beside Loki’s body and touching his face. “You are my heart,” he said, quietly, feeling Loki startle beneath his touch as Loki’s gaze jerked to meet his, surprise written in the depths of his eyes. “I need you to know that.”

Loki blinked, twice, rapidly. He said, “Ah. You saw what they did to me.” His mouth twisted, and he started to roll away.

Thor caught his shoulder, leaning over him, cupping his cheek. “Listen,” he said, low and urgent, “Please, hear me. I love our people. And I love our daughter more than I can even grasp. But you are the heart of me. I went on, after Asgard fell, and after Thanos murdered our people. I went on and I could have continued on, be it unhappily. But I could not--I could not lose you again and continue.”

Loki searched his gaze, hunger and doubt and fear all tangled into his expression. Thor stumbled on, his tongue heavy and awkward, “And it is not because you returned our people, or gave me an heir. It simply is.”

Loki made a sound then, gutted, and surged up off of the bed, curling his fingers around Thor’s head and kissing him. Thor gripped at him, even as he fell onto his back, Loki’s weight settling across him.

Loki pulled back after a stretch of sweet eternity, mouth red and cheeks flushed, and said, “You were the first thing I loved in the universe. And even when I hated all else--” he strangled off, emotion heavy in his eyes.

“I know,” Thor said, because he knew, he knew, perhaps he had always known, even with his soul stinging from betrayal and confusion. He tangled fingers into Loki’s hair and drew him back down.

He had thought his body too weary for any further exertion, but heat surged within him beside hunger and need, and, in the end, they slept very little indeed. He regretted it not at all when the sun finally rose through their windows, panting golden hues across Loki’s skin, where he sprawled, loose-limbed across their sheets.

#

Asgardian healers put the medical technology on Earth to shame, Tony discovered to his delight. They closed up wounds that would have taken weeks of healing, pumped him full of something that made him feel years younger, and turned him loose with kind smiles.

He intended to track Thor and Loki down immediately upon his release - they, obviously, needed to have a big talk - but he was gently turned away when he made his way to their area of the palace. Based on the rumbling of thunder overhead, he supposed they might be busy.

Very busy, considering the storm lasted for most of the night.

Tony listened to the fall of rain and the slow song of the storm through the meal he was offered, finishing off a second bowl of some kind of soup when Heimdall sat down across from him. They had met briefly last time he visited New Asgard. Tony nodded a greeting, and said, “Thanks for the hospitality.”

Heimdall inclined his head. “You saved Princess Frigga’s life,” he said. “You may be smothered with hospitality before you leave.”

Tony tapped his spoon against the side of the bowl. “Yeah, you know, I half expected everyone to be more angry than grateful.”

Heimdall shrugged again. “There are many factions on your world. We understand this and do not hold all of Midgard responsible for the acts of a few.”

Tony hummed. “But I bet you would like to know more about those few and their plans for future actions.”

Heimdall stared at him with those strange, golden eyes, and nodded once more. “It is my duty to protect the realm and the royal family,” he said.

“They’re doing a pretty good job of protecting themselves,” Tony pointed out. He hadn’t heard much from Earth, only abbreviated reports gathered by Friday while he recovered. According to his sources Thor and Loki had decimated some underground facility or the other. He’d seen some numbers for the death toll that made his stomach sick.

“Nevertheless,” Heimdall said, and Tony sighed, leaning back in his chair.

“How do I know you guys aren’t going to just go hit us back? After all, someone on my world just kidnapped your rulers.”

Heimdall blinked at him slowly. “If we were going to… hit you back, we would have done so already. Thor is not the impulsive boy he was.”

“Yeah, you know, I’ve noticed that.” It was strange, not getting such a cold shoulder on Asgard this time around. Funny how things changed when everyone didn’t only associate you with almost preventing their resurrection. “Good for him.” A particularly loud crash of thunder cut off conversation for a moment and Tony whistled. “Does it usually last this long?”

Heimdall cut him a sharp look and stood. “Let’s just say that you might as well retire to your quarters for the night, if you plan to speak with Thor.”

#

They could not hide in their bed forever. Even Thor had to admit that, though he would have happily spent the next century leaving the warmth of their blankets only to eat and take care of the necessities.

It was simply not to be. They rose in the morning and pulled on their clothing. Loki moved a bit gingerly and rolled his eyes when he caught Thor’s expression. “The Jotun will be most pleased with your efforts,” he said, pushing back his hair when Thor grimaced.

“I didn’t do it for the Jotun,” he said, and was rewarded with a flush of Loki’s cheeks that lasted even as they exited their rooms. It was not much of a surprise to find Stark waiting outside, busy with an interface that floated in the air before him.

“There you are,” Stark said, his wounds closed and healing. “Giving the energizer bunny a run for his money, huh? Well, I’m glad you came up for air. I’ve got word that we’re going to have company soon - nothing bad. The Guardians are bringing Nebula here and your misplaced guards.”

“Good,” Thor said, his stomach rumbling. He had worked up quite the appetite, there was no way to deny that.

“But before they get here,” Stark said, falling into step beside them, “I was hoping we might be able to talk about, you know, what exactly you two did with the Infinity Stones?”

Thor glanced over at Loki, who only said, “They’re in a safe place.”

“A safe place.” Tony frowned. “You know, that’s pretty much exactly what the bad guys on Earth said when I asked them.”

“And then they used the stones to capture and torture us,” Loki said. “Surely we cannot misuse them more than that?”

“Not exactly comforting,” Stark said. He looked tired, as though he too had been up throughout the night, and had spent the hours less pleasantly than they had. “Look, they can’t stay together. We all agree on that, right?”

Loki shrugged, and Thor sighed. “We do, yes. It would be best if we could destroy them.”

“Unfortunately,” Loki said, as they stepped into the dining area. “That would not be possible.”

“We could… send some away,” Tony said. “Keep one here. Keep one on Earth.”

“No,” Thor said, speaking almost as soon as the suggestion had left Stark’s mouth. He blinked away the visions that rose up behind his eyes, swallowing the taste of bile.

Stark winced. “Look, I know they were misused. I’m not saying we should give them back to--”

“Strange has one of the stones,” Loki said, crossing the room and pouring a glass of some new, sweet juice that he carried back over and handed to Thor. “It is the foundation of his order. So Midgard will have one Infinity Stone. That is enough for any world.”

Stark gaped for a moment and then shut his mouth. “Okay, yes, that’s true. But--”

“No buts,” Thor said. He wanted a day to spend with his family. He wanted a day of peace. He was beginning to think he would never get either again. “More than one Infinity Stone on a world is too dangerous.”

“And you also don’t think we should have extras,” Tony said, his arms crossed. Thor stared back at him, hearing Loki scream, and-- Stark shook his head. “Alright, fine. Let’s say we keep Strange’s Stone. You guys keep a Stone - the Tesseract, I guess? That was always kind of your thing, huh? - what are we going to do with the rest of them?”

Thor could feel a headache building behind his eyes. “It’s not for us alone to decide,” he said. “There are other worlds we must contact. Peoples we trust.” That was not quite true. Thor could not name anyone else he felt inclined to trust at the moment, but there must be someone.

Perhaps they could freeze one into Jotunheim.

“We can discuss it later,” Loki said, leaning against the wall and taking a large bite of the apple he’d selected. “Perhaps after the wedding. Are you staying, Stark?”

Stark blinked at them both, owlish. “You know,” he said, “I completely forgot about the whole wedding thing. Pepper wanted to come.”

Loki shrugged at him. “Well, perhaps you should tell the Guardians to turn around and go back for her. They should have just enough time to reach us before the ceremonies start. Heimdall will surely slaughter us all if we do not begin on time.”

#

Rocket talked a good game about resenting their taxi-service treatment, but Nebula noticed he did not hesitate to go back to Earth to pick up another passenger. She felt ready to strangle Stark for asking and Rocket for agreeing, impatient notifications disturbing her thoughts every other moment.

The journey from Earth to New Asgard dragged on and on, leaving Nebula to pace as a way to deal with the clamoring processes screaming in her mind. She dumped them, over and over again, but they kept re-initializing every time she so much as glanced at Gamora.

Loki had the Stone. She knew he did. He would have to help her.

That thought spawned a half-dozen more dings on her current processes and she shut them down, wishing for her old mind, her organic brain, the one that could forget things. She marched out of the Benatar with her shoulders up when they finally landed, scanning the group gathered to greet them.

Loki waited to one side and met her gaze, his mouth curling up slightly as he inclined his head.

For a moment, she forgot to breathe. And then she marched back into the ship, found Gamora, and dragged her out. Loki had already moved. She spotted him disappearing into the palace and stormed after him, ignoring Gamora’s quiet inquiries about where, exactly, they were going.

She found Loki in the royal quarters. He was placing his daughter in her bassinet when Nebula entered the room. She closed the door and nudged Gamora towards the nearest chair, before asking, “Well? Can you do it?”

He flashed her a smile. “I can, yes. It won’t be easy. Or pleasant.”

“I don’t care,” Nebula said. She’d take whatever unpleasantness was required. “Do it.”

“What are you two talking about?” Gamora asked, but she was sitting in the chair, calm and placid. Nebula remembered a time she would be demanding answers, refusing to be led around like so much baggage.

“I’ll explain in a moment,” Loki said. He reached into nothing, into empty space and drew out a golden strap inset with the Stones. Nebula stifled a flinch. Gamora only looked at it, as though she hadn’t lost some vital part of herself to the accursed thing, as though--

“What do we need to do?” Nebula asked, stepping towards Loki. He held the strap gingerly, looking over the four Stones set into it before shifting his gaze to her.

“The Soul Stone is the most dangerous of the Stones,” he said, as though she cared. “It can… take a piece of those it is in contact with.”

“It took a piece of Gamora,” Nebula said, hoping to speed this process up.

“I have all my pieces,” Gamora said, still sitting in the chair, watching them. There was no force behind the words.

“Yes,” Loki said, ignoring Gamora. “It did. I can get it out again, but I will need… a filter. Someone to help me find her missing piece, among all the others in the Stone.”

“Fine,” Nebula said, bracing her legs and balling her hands into fists. It would not be pleasant, he’d said. She believed him. “I’ll do it. Make her right.”

Loki stared at her for a moment. Some dark thing moved over his eyes. He said, “This could kill you.” He hesitated, looking down at the Stone. “I shouldn’t--”

“You will,” Nebula said, cutting off whatever strange turn his thoughts had taken. “We both know you will. Because she’s my sister, and I need to save her. So let’s stop delaying the inevitable and--”

He moved so quickly. One moment she was snapping words and the next his cool palm rested against her forehead, his fingers curled around to press against her scalp. She tried to scream. It was not unpleasant. It was agony, sharp and vicious pain digging down into her thoughts, burning away dozens of emotional processes, searing through automatic functions, to the deep layers of her mind--

She floated in nothing, in red light, and then landed, hard, on her hands and knees. Red grass spread out around her, curling around her wrists. She stood, slowly, nauseous with pain. She could not see Loki, but she felt his hand, pressed against her head.

There were people around her. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. They were all different forms, different peoples. Some wept. Others screamed. They all jostled one another, as though there was not enough space for them to all stand in this field of red.

Nebula pushed her way through the crowd, calling, “Gamora!” She wondered how long she would have to look, how far this crowd went, and then she froze.

Thanos stood before her, head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. Her pulse regulator stuttered and all of her defense programs came online at once. He stood looking at her, hatred in his dark eyes. He bared his teeth, his ugly face twisted up with malice.

Nebula looked away from him, had to, down to the girl he held by the hand. She was a small thing, green skinned, with eyes that Nebula would have known anywhere. “Hey, Gamora,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’ve come to take you home.”

The little girl blinked up at her, and for a moment Nebula felt certain she would not be recognized. But then Gamora smiled - the smile Nebula’d missed for so long - and said, “Nebula. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Nebula said. “Now come here.” She extended a hand. She meant to walk over, but she could not make her legs take a step closer to Thanos. He had not moved. She didn’t know if he could. She didn’t want to find out. Even to look at him was to invite her memory to replay a hundred instances of pain she’d been sure she couldn’t live through at the time. She gritted her teeth, resisting the urge to run.

Gamora glanced up at Thanos and then back to her. “I don’t think I can,” she said, her eyes going sad as her smile faded away. “No one leaves here.”

“You will,” Nebula said. She could still feel Loki’s cool skin. She wished he’d pull them out. He said he’d needed her to locate Gamora. She’d done that. It must not have been enough. She edged a step closer. “You’re coming with me.”

Gamora blinked. She said, very quiet, “He won’t let me go, Nebula. It’s okay. This time I am going to take care of you.”

Nebula could feel Thanos tracking her slow forward progress. She couldn’t look at him. She just kept watching Gamora. “Wrong again,” she said, through gritted teeth. Her feet felt like lead and her stomach like ice. She had to manually regulate her breathing to keep spots from swarming across her eyes.

But she reached Gamora. She could feel the heat radiating from Thanos’s body, she could smell him, the smell of blood and burnt worlds. She grabbed Gamora’s hand, sensing Thanos’s movement, the massive swing of one of his fists towards her head and she braced for it--

The world contracted, as though she’d been thrown unexpectedly into a black hole. Everything went to blackness and pain, agony, each cell of her body being pulled apart at the molecular level. She screamed and couldn’t hear the sound, aware of a sensation very much like falling through atmosphere, towards an unforgiving ground, and of Gamora’s hand in hers.

It took her a long, long moment to realize she no longer held a child’s hand. As the realization washed over her, the darkness faded. The pain retreated enough that she could breathe and open her eyes, finding herself on her knees, gripping Gamora’s hand. Loki knelt beside her, his hand still on her forehead, though, as she watched, he gave a soft groan and fell over backwards.

He sprawled inelegantly against the floor, the gold band falling out of his hand.

Nebula pushed concern for him to a background task, looking up at Gamora who was -- weeping. “Gamora?” she croaked. Her throat felt ruined. She pushed up, ignoring the dizziness in her head. “Gamora? Are you alright? Are you--”

Gamora looked up at her, tears streaking down her face, and then moved, launching herself forward, arms going around Nebula to pull her close. “You found me,” Gamora said, her cheek wet against Nebula’s, her body trembling. “You found me.”

“Of course I did,” Nebula said, some emotion she could not process filling up her chest, erasing the memory of the agony of a moment ago with burning brightness. She carefully wrapped her arms around Gamora, listening to Gamora’s soft, wet laughter for a moment, before she added, “But we should make sure the man that helped me isn’t dead.”

#

Thor bore up to the introductions to Stark’s woman with as much grace as he could muster. The last few days had been one long nightmare and he had not expected them to conclude with a fury of last-minute wedding planning, but that seemed to be what was going to happen, regardless.

He managed to excuse himself from questions about the ceremony - no one seemed sure who should perform the ceremony, it was obvious to Thor that it must be Heimdall - and made his way to their rooms. Loki had been suspiciously absent from the greetings and surprise planning session. He’d always known how to avoid undesirable tasks.

Thor entered their quarters anticipating that he might hide as well and, perhaps, pass the next few hours with only Loki.

He drew up short upon discovering Loki on the floor, unconscious, with Gamora leaning over him while Nebula rubbed at her head. The boom of thunder from outside announced his presence. Nebula jerked her head up, her dark eyes wide when she said, “This isn’t what it looks like.”

Thor took a step forward, electricity crackling across his fingers. “It would be best if you told me exactly what it was, then. Now.”

Gamora look up at him, her fingers on Loki’s neck. She looked different. Thor could not determine how. It was something about the way she moved. She said, “He was helping Nebula. I was--it’s complicated. But he’s fine. Just exhausted, I think.”

Thor knelt at Loki’s side, frowning at the gold strap by his hand. “He used the Stones?” he asked, checking for Loki’s pulse on his own, relieved to find it steady.

“Only the Soul Stone,” Nebula said. “And only for a moment.”

“Mm,” Loki groaned, blinking his eyes open and frowning, trying to roll over onto his side. “Did it work?” he only slurred the words a little.

“It did,” Nebula said, and Thor gapped at all of them.

“Are you all mad?” he asked, helping Loki sit. He felt unusually warm, and laughed giddily as his head fell against Thor’s shoulder. He waved a hand, completing the movement by curling his fingers into the collar of Thor’s shirt.

“She needed help saving her sister,” he said, nuzzling into Thor’s throat. “I could not turn her away.” Thor found it difficult to maintain the thread of his indignant anger as Loki’s breath slid across his skin. “I am sure you understand.”

Thor looked across at Gamora and Nebula. Nebula had a pleased, satisfied look about her exhausted features, as though she’d won a battle long fought. And Gamora… he could not tell what had changed about her eyes. He said, “Don’t do it again.”

Loki laughed, trailing fingers up Thor’s neck and raising gooseflesh in their wake. Thor shivered and said, after clearing his throat, “Perhaps you should go tell your crew about your success.” They should, most definitely, be somewhere besides his quarters.

He watched them until they left and then scrubbed his hand over his face. “You frightened me,” he said, trying to will away the image of Loki spread across the floor, limp.

“My apologies,” Loki said, without sounding very sorry at all. He trailed his lips up Thor’s throat, which seemed almost as good as an apology. Thor shifted him, pulling Loki across his waist so that he could get hands on him and kiss him properly.

“Our wedding is to begin tomorrow,” he said. “Can you not make me fear for your life again until then?”

Loki’s smile stretched wide and glorious. He nipped at the swell of Thor’s lip and shifted against him. “I am sure you can find some way to safely occupy me,” he said, and Thor felt a groan escape his chest even as he fisted a hand in Loki’s hand and kissed him.

#

The weather was clear and beautiful on the first day of the wedding; Thor made sure of it.

The world bloomed around them, the air full of the sweet perfume of flowering trees and plants. A breeze moved over the city, lifting the flags and decorations hung off of buildings and out of windows. Sweet music rolled through the air, joined by voices lifted in exhalutant song.

Thor stood before the palace, face tilted up, aware he was smiling and unable to stop it. He had managed to keep Loki well occupied through the night hours, yet no exhaustion seemed to touch him. He felt too full of buoyant joy, as though it would spill out of him.

There was work to be done and he knew it. The situation on Midgard would require, no doubt, a great deal of arguing and perhaps some bloodshed to settle. But he felt confident now that he had allies there, warriors that would side with him.

There were more treaties to establish, a world to finish building, a child - perhaps more children - to raise. No doubt Hela would decide to visit again at some point, ending whatever self-imposed exile she’d taken to. But all of that could wait, at least for a week, at least until the end of their wedding.

He looked out across the gathered crowd, gaze passing over his reborn people and his friends. Not many from Midgard had chosen to attend. He did not begrudge them their discomfort. Stark and Miss Potts stood in the crowd, though, along with the King of Wakanda, Rogers, and Agent Romanoff.

The Guardians grouped together near the far side of the courtyard. He heard Gamora laugh and realized he could not remember ever hearing that sound before. Nebula seemed similarly surprised, staring with a sort of relief at her sister.

All of the rest of the crowd faded from his attention as the music rose around them, ebullient and wild as Heimdall stepped out from the palace doors, Loki following a half-step behind him. The crowd cheered, cheered as though they meant to fill the entirety of the world with sound and Thor thought to cheer with them for a moment, but all he could do was stare, taking in the sight before him with hungry eyes.

Loki grinned, ducking his head in a poor attempt to hide it and the delight in his eyes. He stepped beside Thor and glanced up at him. “Well?” he asked, staring out across the crowd of their people, the clear blue sky, the world spread beyond. He offered out his hand. “Shall we?”

Thor took his hand and pulled him closer, an embrace unplanned by the dedicated souls devoted to arranging the ceremony. But he could not move forward without stealing at least one kiss. “There,” he said, shifting back and enjoying the redness of Loki’s mouth. “I am ready now.”

END