Surprisingly it was Clint who asked the question that started it. They were all at a pizza parlor, celebrating the by-now traditional Avengers apocalypse-averted feast, and Thor had drunk enough cola to be an especially enthusiastic storyteller. Tony had noted a while back that while Asgardian physiology processed booze nearly as well as Steve's, Thor was susceptible to caffeine—no tolerance; Asgard didn't go in for either coffee or tea, apparently. Amazing the kingdom had lasted a week, let alone millennia.
At any rate, the team had all learned to duck when Thor started talking after chugging a couple liters of Pepsi, to avoid getting decapitated by a sweep of his tree-trunk arms as he gestured all the good parts—in grand old Viking tradition, Thor's stories were half epic poem and half pantomime.
This time Bruce and Natasha had had enough warfare for the day, and tag-teamed to steer Thor toward slightly less bloody topics. Which unfortunately ended up at the tale of his almost-coronation—which would inevitably lead to how his jackass supervillain of a brother had screwed up Thor's big day, which would then inevitably lead to a depressed and moping Thor, and Tony and Steve were sending urgent cross-signals of Abort! Abort! across the red-checked tablecloth when Clint stepped up to the plate.
"So why were you getting crowned then, anyway?" he asked, precision targeting that stopped Thor in his Pepsi'ed-up tracks.
"What do you mean, why?"
"I mean, I know you're the crown prince and all, hail Thor, whatever," and Clint saluted with half a slice of pepperoni and olives. "But isn't your dad still alive? So why was he foisting the job off on you? Especially since five minutes later he went and said no way—kind of a dick move, that, no offense—so what was the big deal that day, that you were up for getting kinged at all?"
Thor frowned through most of the question, and Tony was tensing up—Steve across the table even more so, wound any tighter and a spring would start poking out of his all-American chest—but the thunder god's brow unclouded by the end of Clint's spiel. "Oh, it was my name day," Thor said. "The first day I could properly rule as my own man, by Asgard law."
"Name day?" Clint repeated.
"Like a birthday," Bruce supplied. The books on Norse culture and legends that Tony had caught him ordering on Amazon were paying off. "How old are you, Thor?"
Thor considered for a moment, counting off on his fingers, and finally said, "While I'm not quite positive how our calendar correlates with your own, I believe I am about fifty years over a thousand."
Clint whistled; Natasha remarked, "And here I thought you didn't look a day over nine hundred."
Thor looked more embarrassed than pleased by their surprise. Tony coughed, inquired, "So what is that in dog years—never mind, I know, it's 7,350 if anyone was wondering. But what is it in human years?"
"I was speaking in Earth years, Stark," Thor said, bemused.
"Yeah, not what I meant. If you were a human, how old would you be, equivalently speaking?"
"Equivalent to what?" Thor asked.
"Equivalent to Stark's face," Clint said, and snickered, proving that archers were as vulnerable to caffeine as Asgardians, at least at one A.M. and chasing three beers and half a large pizza.
The conversation devolved from there, but Tony remembered it the next day. So after Iron Man and Thor's afternoon sparring session (okay, Thor's sparring session; Tony tinkered with his latest robot suit's remote control a bit, but the AI was almost good enough to avoid getting smashed to components on its own, which was useful because Tony didn't have the reflexes himself to match a lightning bolt) he pulled the big guy aside for a discussion on comparative physiology and social expectations with regards to the Asgardian aging process, or lack thereof.
The day after that Tony called for a staff meeting, all hands on deck. Nick Fury was less than thrilled to find out there was no actual planet-threatening emergency—which was Fury's problem right there, because in Tony's book hearing the Earth wasn't in immediate danger should be good news—and glared at him across the conference table. "Stark, did you declare an urgent meeting just to discuss Agard social customs? Are we going to be hosting an emergency dinner party? Should I be researching what order to lay out Viking forks?"
"Actually they didn't have forks, only—" Bruce started to say, then hastily shut his mouth when Fury's head started to inexorably turn in his direction.
"The dinner party's on hold until we work out how to send invitations over the Bifrost," Tony said, "and this is only partway about social customs—okay, the deal is, Thor was up for his coronation a couple years ago because, by Asgard standards, he'd only just reached the age of majority. Which isn't just a legal thing. So Thor's over a thousand, right? But it turns out his dad Odin's over four thousand."
Thor nodded confirmation. Fury glared at him a moment and then switched it back to Tony, mainly because Thor only returned Fury's look with his own electric-blue stare, while as Tony actually squirmed, try as he might not to. At least Fury only had the one eye. The glare from two might cross the streams and end the spacetime continuum.
Steve, bless his too-noble heart, bravely threw himself on the cabbage-head grenade. "So what's the point about King Odin's age, Tony? What's that got to do with the price of tea in China?"
"No tea," Tony said, "just teenagers. Which is what our guy Thor here is. Seems that Asgardian men grow up fast—warrior culture, you know, gotta get the soldiers out and fighting. By our standards, if Thor had been human, growing up at the regular rate, he'd be about seventeen right now. And will be for the next half a century or so."
Everyone blinked simultaneously—Tony was almost surprised he couldn't hear their eyelids shuttering up and down—and looked at Thor. Thor, sitting with his massive arms folded over his massive chest, amicably returned the stares. Tony had talked this over with him yesterday and he'd objectively agreed with the assessment, once Tony had assuaged his pride by assuring him he was still, by any important Earth standard, the manliest of manly men, albeit a young one.
After a moment's study, Natasha raised her hand. "I've never met a seventeen-year-old quite this..." Her gaze took the scenic route up and down Thor's truly godlike physique, "...mature."
"Yeah," Clint said. "You've got to be, what, at least mid-twenties?"
"About that," Tony said. "It seems like Asgardians have some semi-conscious influence over their appearances. More than just being able to change outfits on a whim; they can grow into who they want to be, kind of." Which, as far as Tony had been able to figure out, explained why there were no homely Asgardians, and man he really did need to organize a dinner sometime, all for the sake of good diplomatic relations, of course—"Looks-wise they get over the gawky adolescent phase a lot quicker—what teenager doesn't want to look older and more grown-up than they really are?"
Everyone was looking between Thor and one another. Tony could see them working through the same calculations and mental adjustments he'd been making himself, re-evaluating Thor's enthusiasm and recklessness and oddly sweet naiveté. Odin hadn't made a bad call; for a teenager Thor was pretty damn responsible.
None of them had made it to the next step, though, so Tony interrupted. "You guys get what this means?"
Steve looked uneasy. "That we're breaking the law every time we take Thor out drinking?"
"Well, not technically," Bruce said. "Chronologically speaking, he's still older than any of us by a couple orders of magnitude, and the law doesn't specify comparative ages..."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yes, because preserving the spirit of ridiculous laws in the grand old American Puritanical tradition is what the Avengers are all about. And Thor can still drink all of us but you under the table, Steve. No, there's a bigger issue. Namely that Thor isn't the only Asgardian we deal with."
"Well, but Odin is definitely an adult," Bruce started to say, "and—" and then he stopped, as he and everyone else at the table remembered Thor's brother. Thor's homicidal suicidal megalomaniacal little brother.
"So if you're 'seventeen'," Clint said, "then how old is that bas—" He stopped, mouth twisting, and switched over to, "how old is Loki?"
Thor frowned the frown he always got when talking about Loki, regretful disapproval with just a splash of abject misery. "My brother and I share a name day by our parents' choice, that we might both have had equal consideration for the crown."
"But that's a technicality," Tony interjected. "Frost giants grow up at the same rate as Asgardians, and Loki was younger than Thor was when he was adopted—there's a little leeway there, but the best guess is he's just about going on sixteen, equivalently. Which does explain the helmet," he added, recalling some of his own teen fashion disasters with a shudder.
Fury's eye narrowed. "You're telling me that all the times Loki's nearly pulled one over on us—"
"Yessir, we were getting our superheroic asses schooled by a punk kid."
"But—" Clint protested. "But..." He slumped down in his chair, crossed his arms and muttered, "Never did like kids much..."
There was a crease in Natasha's brow, and Bruce was frowning down at the table. Steve looked about the closest to how Tony actually felt, like he'd been punched in the gut and was trying not to throw up. "But if he's that—if he's only—we've tried to—"
"Kind of makes more sense, huh, the whole self-centered, angst-ridden, sticking-it-to-the-family, doesn't-care-who-gets-hurt thing," Tony said. Giving a throne, semi-omnipotent magic, and an alien army to a kid who wasn't even old enough to drive in some states...and that was putting aside the whole being adopted from frost giants and lied to about it for a thousand-odd years thing. There weren't many teens who would handle that with equanimity, human or otherwise.
"Sense or not, he's still a danger to this planet and everyone on it," Fury said grimly. "This doesn't change anything."
"Yeah," Tony said, "except that if we ever do catch Loki again, we should be sending him to juvie. And instead of a trans-laser disintegrator we can aim a guidance counselor at him. Help him explore other career paths besides autocratic supervillain. Hey, maybe I can get him a summer internship at Stark Industries; we've got some programs for disadvantaged youths—"
"Do magic superpowers count as a disadvantage?" Bruce wondered.
Thor brightened. "My brother has expressed interest in your science and technology—"
"—at least in taking it apart," Clint muttered. "Usually while Stark's still inside it..."
"You are not giving Loki an internship," Fury pronounced. "And we're not going to go all soft on a critical extraterrestrial threat just because he happens to be a thousand-year-old teenager with an attitude problem—"
"Well, I am," Tony said, "but I'm not the team captain here; no one's got to follow my lead. What about you, Steve, what do you think?"
Steve was nearly as immune to Fury's glares as Thor, and didn't look to their purported boss now. His jaw was squared in a reassuringly classic-movie-star manner. "We'll definitely have to reconsider our tactics. Obviously we can't underestimate him, but...if he's that young, maybe he can be brought around..."
Thor was beaming—if his anger was a thunderhead, then this was pure sunshine, blue skies, rainbows, the works. "Loyal friends on Midgard changed me for the better; I've no doubt you could do the same for my brother!"
Fury made a sound that would've had a rabid wolf cowering, and dismissed them all before things got any more touchy-feely. Tony was satisfied to see Thor and Steve leave in focused discussion, plotting ways of reaching out that hopefully wouldn't get them all killed; Bruce's quiet advice and Clint's commentary would help with that.
Natasha remained behind, leaning back in her chair and watching Tony. It would've been flattering if she hadn't been able to kill him with one little finger. Probably in half a dozen different ways. "What?" he asked.
"This really is getting to you," Natasha observed.
"Loki's always been a little shit," Tony said with a shrug. "I just didn't think...he's kind of like me, you know. Everyone knows that. Astonishing genius, wicked sense of humor—"
"Yeah, okay, a bit of a diva. And a bit of a self-destructive streak sometimes, too. But I'm not a criminal psychopath."
He arched his eyebrows at Natasha, daring her to protest, but she only said, "No, you're not."
"...Except you didn't know me at sixteen," Tony sighed. "It wasn't pretty. And I had a bunch of people trying to straighten me out, not just one brother who's young enough himself to be way out of his depth. And there wasn't a superhero team trying to take me out on a regular basis, either; can't imagine that would've helped me any..."
"We didn't know," Natasha said.
"But now we do," Tony returned. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to forget about it, just because Loki's a hideously dangerous pain in the ass who keeps trying to take over the planet. If I could come around, after all the shit I pulled at that age, then he can, too." He grinned. "Besides, hey, the world can always use another reformed, grown-up Tony Stark—especially one who's an actual god!"
Natasha muttered something in Russian—a prayer, from the words Tony picked up, and he opted to take it as a compliment. She rose from the table and he got up with her, shaking his head. "Though man, this team could give a guy a complex. Between you and Thor, and the rumors about Fury—and Steve was born in the twenties—and Bruce loses the gray when he's the other guy—are Clint and I the only ones who actually look our ages?"
"What are you talking about?" Natasha said. "You hardly look your age—"
"Why, thank you—" Tony started to preen.
"—you're the oldest-looking eight-year-old boy I've ever met," Natasha finished.
Tony very maturely stuck out his tongue, and followed his teammate out the door.