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In a certain sense, it probably was Thor’s way of making amends to him, Loki supposed; that the oaf could find him easily enough when he decided he needed to talk, with no consideration to whether Loki himself wanted to be talked to and generally be found or not (he didn’t), and yet never used it against him. Loki knew that if asked, he told his teammates and the SHIELD that he couldn’t lead them to Loki because he would surely feel it and disappear before they had a chance to approach his current hideout, and there was no way he could defeat his brother on his own, so this talent of his was of no use to anyone, really.

However loath Loki was to admit it, that was a lie; he knew all too well that he couldn’t handle Thor, having been defeated one too many times in youth for it to not have left a print both in memory and mind. It was a pattern, after all; he was way more creative and sly, but Thor was stronger and could be fast enough if he wanted to.

So that wasn’t the case. The truth was, Thor never even tried to fight him, which was maddening and humiliating on its own, but right now it hardly mattered – as usually during his visits.

Another talent of his was aggravating Loki with his pointless conversations to the point where Loki all but forgot that they were supposed to be enemies here, and times of brotherly bickering have been left far behind.

“I remember,” he hissed, “when you were the first in line to fight the frost giants; I must have lost my mind or heard you wrong, for there is no way you said what I think you just said.”

“You heard me right, brother,” Thor repeated grimly. “I’m not proud of my past heedlessness, and I learned to admit my faults; now I seek to redeem them.”

“I can’t believe you,” Loki stopped his pacing, pausing at the railing that separated them from the Hudson river, and laughed harshly, mockingly. “Forgive me, but I simply can’t wrap my mind around it – are you truly suggesting we go to Jötunheimr? And not to fight the evil frost giants, but to help?

“I do,” Thor frowned, leaning on the railing as well. “It has suffered a great damage; now that Bifröst is working again it is our duty--”

“Do you even hear yourself, Thor?” Loki threw his arms up, frustrated with this talk in particular and Thor in general. “You, who hated those monsters with everything he had, suggest we go help them now?”

“I have changed since then,” Thor replied calmly, unperturbed. “And so have you, it would seem, for I remember those times as well, and you have always been the one for diplomacy.”

“I have never,” Loki spat out, leaning closer to him, “said that they were anything but cold hearted monsters. I have never said that they deserved anything less than being destroyed.”

Thor winced, and Loki straightened in triumph. It wasn’t long lived, however – there was little that could shut Thor up for good.

“All the more reasons to show your good--”

“I will do no such thing!” Loki shouted, clenching his fists. At this time of the night the embankment was mostly rid of people, but the few passersby startled at the sound of his voice and walked faster. Thor winced again, but didn’t berate him, even though conviction was clear on his face. Loki raised his head higher and sent him a challenging glare; Thor only sighed, visibly deflating.

Loki knew what he was trying to do; luckily, this sad puppy look stopped working on him decades ago.

“Tell me just one thing, brother,” he spat out venomously, narrowing his eyes. “What makes you think that taking me, of all people, along, is a good idea? After all, it was my doing that brought their world to such state that you are now looking to better.”

Thor had that mulish look about him which clearly indicated that at least in his opinion, their conversation was far from over, but Loki had other ideas – and he wasn’t going to let Thor have the last word.

“Do as you think you must,” he drawled. “But don’t bring me into this.”

That world owed him much more than he owed it, after all.

A simple illusion made him invisible, and he took a moment to enjoy the way Thor’s expression fell, only becoming confused and lost for a moment, as it always did when Loki disappeared without as much as a warning.

He didn’t stay long enough to find out what Thor did next and disappeared for real this time, cursing his brother and his stupid, misplaced noble ideas.

~*~*~

“Sir, I believe your presence is required on the communal floor.”

Tony hummed, frowning, and let go of a new holographic control core, allowing it to spin idly in the air above his worktable.

“What is? Did someone break something again? Seriously, they have no respect for—”

“It is Thor, sir,” Jarvis interrupted him as politely as he could, still somehow managing to sound very done with Tony’s grumbling. “And I do think that it’s highly recommended for you to be there, considering everyone else have already… assembled.”

Tony blinked, forgetting about his project for a moment. Thor had left for some otherworldly business about two days ago, and told them not to expect him back for another few weeks at least; for him to return so soon was anything but a good sign.

“Do I need to suit up?” he asked seriously, already on his feet and ready to burst into action.

That shouldn’t be necessary,” Jarvis was quick to reassure him.

Tony didn’t feel exactly reassured. With all the Avengers assembled and Thor back from whenever he went to so much earlier than expected, something just had to be wrong.

He had all ride on the elevator to ponder this thought, but there wasn’t enough floors in the tower to get ready for the sight that was waiting for him on the communal floor.

Namely, Thor with a tiny, writhing, wailing child in his giant-looking hands, looking lost and helpless in the middle of the living room, with all the Avengers silently watching him with various degrees of awe and disbelief.

The child also just happened to be indigo-blue.

“Huh,” Tony said eloquently; the others only glanced at him briefly, but Thor’s eyes filled with hope as he noticed him leave the elevator.

“Friend Tony!” he boomed – or rather, made a confusing attempt at booming while staying quiet for the child’s sake. “It is good to see you,” he added in a hushed voice when the child wailed louder.

“It’s good to see you too, buddy,” Tony muttered. “If a little… unexpected, huh. Didn’t think you’d be coming back so soon.”

“Or bring someone else with you,” Clint added in a low tone. “Did you run into an ex-girlfriend or what?”

Thor sent him a reproving look, but he only shrugged.

So Tony didn’t miss an explanation.

“Okay, what’s going on?” he wondered out loud, over the pitiful cries.

“Thor brought back a baby,” Clint helpfully provided before anyone else had a chance to speak; this time, it got him more than one sour look.

“Yeah, well, I figured it.”

“You didn’t exactly miss anything,” Steve added softly. “We’ve been… far too startled to discuss anything before you came here.”

“Yeah, it’s been mostly ‘what the fuck, dude’ and ‘how did it get here’ and ‘where did it come from’,” Clint said again, obviously the least affected of all.

“Language,” Steve reprimanded automatically. “Not in front of a child.”

“Does it even understand our language?”

“Do you really think it’s important at the moment?” Natasha interrupted with a frown. “Now that we all are here, perhaps you would like to explain the meaning of this, Thor?”

Thor slowly nodded and looked down at the child miserably, trying to make it calm down.

“Perhaps it’s hungry?” Bruce suggested awkwardly.

“Just in case, I suggest no feeding it after midnight and try to avoid getting it wet,” Tony muttered, edging closer to Thor curiously. Up close the child didn’t look any different from any other child he’s ever seen – well, the skin color aside. Just your regular, pitiful baby making a fuss, clearly unhappy to be here.

Thor hummed and frowned, looking at Tony curiously.

“I really don’t suppose that it’s a good idea to deny a child a bath time when needed.”

“Yeah, no, that was—that doesn’t really matter,” Tony waved him off and shifted to look at the tiny face better, only interrupted by Natasha’s meaningful cough. “Anyway – what she said? Because I’m kinda really dying to know how this little one made it here, too, buddy.”

“I found it on my quest to make amends to Jötunheimr. It was lying on the freezing ground, barely even moved, alone and abandoned.”

“How do you know it was abandoned, though?” Clint perched on the back of the couch on the safe distance from both Thor and the child, watching them with a cautious eye. “You’ve told us that it’s the land of the Ice Giants or something, right? So, like… isn’t everything there supposed to be cold? Maybe it was, I dunno, just resting, or its parents left it to play in the snow while they went out.”

Thor shook his head and made another shushing noise. The child only squirmed harder, but the pitiful sounds slowly subsided as it clearly got tired out by sobbing.

Despite never having been a child’s person, Tony felt something tug at his heart painfully.

“Frost giants,” Thor said sternly, “are exactly what they are called. Giants.”

“Doesn’t look all that gigantic to me,” Tony pointed out. “Bruce?”

“From what I can see, it’s the size of a normal human baby, yes,” Bruce confirmed, adjusting his glasses. “Perhaps even smaller than some; it’s hard to guess an age, though, so I might be mistaken.”

“It might hit the growing spree later,” Clint muttered stubbornly; Thor only scowled.

“It won’t. It’s a half-blood, and it was left out to die because of that. It’s a miracle it survived at all; I must’ve found it mere hours after it’s been left there.”

“And you… decided to bring it here?” Steve concluded, wincing at the loud wail and looking at the child with pity. “Are you… sure it’s a good idea?”

“Was I supposed to just let it die?” Thor boomed, clutching the child protectively to his huge chest, which only made it cry harder, and Tony had just enough of it.

“Okay, buddy, I think you’re crushing the poor thing,” he said, confidently walking closer and tugging at Thor’s giant arms gently. Confused by his insistence, Thor carefully let go, allowing him to take a child despite others protests.

As he got the hold of a baby, Tony realized a few things at once.

One, it was small. Disturbingly so; it looked tiny in Thor’s hands, but even in his it still looked too small, and was practically weightless, which didn’t sound like a good thing.

Two, that blue skin was not the only thing that differed it from human. When the small and slightly puffy eyes opened at the sudden movement, they were blood red, and clearly not just from all the crying.

And three, it was fucking cold to the touch. Like, if Tony had to take a guess, he’d say that after a few minutes of holding it, his hands would go numb, it was that cold.

It observed him with a confused little pout and then wrinkled it’s small nose, sniffing again.

“I’ve got… so many questions,” Tony muttered absently, gently cradling the baby. “But because it’s getting really awkward to call it an it – any idea if it’s a… she? Or a he?”

“It’s a girl,” Thor said, the confusion still all over his face; Tony didn’t even take his eyes from the tiny form in his arms, too tired to cry as loud as it started, but too worked up to calm down just yet.

“A girl, huh,” he whispered, rocking the girl softly. “Well… Welcome to your new family, princess.”

~*~*~

The rest of the Avengers weren’t too hyped about the newest addition to the team – Clint kept on insisting that they couldn’t be sure the child’s parents won’t change their minds and come seeking revenge on the accidental kidnappers – but had to reluctantly agree that they couldn’t really send her away, either.

Even though Natasha did suggest Thor taking the baby to Jane Foster instead, because it only seemed fitting – she was his girlfriend, after all, and shouldn’t she be the one who helped him raise any picked up strays?

Thor hesitated at that, before finally admitting that Jane had been too busy with some project and he didn’t feel comfortable with disturbing her.

“Besides, there’s always the issue of a scientist being more interested in the other species thing than the helpless baby thing, right?” Tony muttered, rocking the improvised baby crib with one hand and placing an order for baby things on his tablet with the other. The child finally quieted down when they put her down, but still wasn’t sleeping and watched her surroundings with worried eyes and a cute little frown.

Well. It was as cute as it was heartbreaking to see such a small baby so scared and lost.

Thor didn’t grace him with an answer, but his silence was even more telling. Tony could sympathize with that, really; if anything, he was surprised himself that his first instinct was to take care of a small being and not run a dozen of tests on it, because that was one hell of a chance to get his hands on an alien.

Alien or not, though, it looked like a baby and it acted as a baby, and it was a pretty miserable, sad baby at that.

He just – he couldn’t do that to her, okay? He wasn’t that kind of a monster.

Bruce seemed to be of the same opinion, with the addition of his doctor instincts kicking in.

“She seems severely underweighted,” he hummed, confirming Tony’s suspicion. “She doesn’t look older than a few months; three, four at most, but even if she’s younger than that, she should weight more. That really should be taken care of.”

“Any ideas what she eats?” Steve asked, pacing around the room, looking both agitated and the most collected of them all somehow. “Does her species drink milk?”

“Or do they drink blood,” Clint sneered darkly from his corner, earning himself a distasteful glare from Natasha. “What? Just considering the probabilities here.”

“Sadly, I would not know,” Thor admitted, his shoulders sagging in shame. “I have… never encountered a frost giant offspring before.”

“You said she’s a half-blood; that means part Frost Giant and part… what?” Tony paused his browsing through the shop’s offerings to look at Thor questioningly.

The god shrugged again, huffing as he tried to burrow further into the couch.

“There’s no telling who the child’s parents are. For it to have been abandoned in the Jötunheimr, its mother must have been of that world, but I can’t say who fathered it. Not many would go to that land, even less would want to mate with jötnar, but more unlikely alliances have been formed.”

“So we have an alien child on our hands, but we don’t know its exact species and how to take care of it,” Natasha summed up, folding her arms across her chest. “Sounds fun.”

“I think we should at least try milk,” Steve insisted.

“And raw meat,” grunted Clint. “Since it’s a trial and error method anyway.”

“Oh, you’re so funny,” Natasha rolled her eyes. “It’s just a child, Clint. Not a vampire.”

“He’s just jealous that he’s not the only child on the team anymore,” Tony singsonged, sending his order through and getting the confirmation that it’s on the way from Jarvis. He ignored Clint’s angry huffs and switched his attention back to the child. “I’m more worried about her being so cold. Is that okay? Is that not okay? How do we do that okay if it’s not?”

“Frost Giants are supposed to be cold,” Thor laughed, leaning forward to look at the baby, who tensed immediately and shuffled in her blankets. “In fact, their touch usually leads to severe frostbite. But she’s only half-jötunn, so it’s not dangerous.”

“That’s… good to know,” Tony cringed. Great; at least now they didn’t need to figure out how to warm her up, so, yeah, one less problem.

Which didn’t really explain how to handle a dangerously cold baby, but they’d get there. Eventually.

At least he hoped so.

“We should probably make tests to find out if she’s allergic to anything,” Bruce said, interrupting his thoughts. “I guess that’s the only way to know if we can safely feed her.”

“Well…”

It was almost funny, how all eyes in the room turned to Thor at that one word.

“I guess there is someone I could ask,” he said sheepishly, looking at his locked hands. “But you should probably do your… tests anyway, as there is no way to know how that would go.”

~*~*~

“You brought back what?!

It was just a bad dream. Too ridiculous to be deemed a nightmare, but also too preposterous to be real.

It must have been, because there was no way that Loki had heard what he thought he just heard – which seemed to become a reoccurring issue with Thor.

He had to be messing with him, because that’s what he always did. Just for the fun of it, or maybe even as a revenge for having turned him down less than a week ago.

It was too ridiculous even for Thor, though.

“No,” Loki poked him in the chest just as Thor opened his mouth to repeat what he said. “No. I don’t want to hear it. Do me a favor, brother, and pretend that you have never suggested… that.”

“But…”

“I said no!”

“But it’s only a child!”

Ugh!” Loki stomped away angrily, kicking at the shrub on the corner of park’s path. “What part of ‘I don’t want to hear it’ did you not understand, you oaf?!”

“Loki…”

He wanted to disappear and end this mockery of a conversation. He really did.

He also really didn’t want to endure Thor for longer than he absolutely needed, and getting away from him now only meant that Thor will find him again.

Loki wanted to scream.

“First you want to help frost giants,” he hissed, twisting away from Thor’s grabby hands as the oaf made a move to touch his shoulder, “then you bring back a baby jötunn?! What is wrong with you?!”

Thor frowned, as if Loki had just offended him.

“It’s not a jötunn,” he insisted. “It’s a half-blood, and it was left to die. Was I supposed to let it?”

Yes!” Loki cried out, frustrated beyond any measure. “That’s what you’re supposed to do with any frost giants – kill them, cease their existence, leave them to die, children or not! It’s like you haven’t been raised in Asgard!”

He could feel Thor looking at him, just as offended as he was surprised now, and then – oh, yeah, he could feel the moment that stare turned into an accusing glare with an added scowl. He didn’t even need to see Thor’s face for that, which was convenient since Loki was too busy pacing all over the secluded part of the park.

“It’s just a child,” Thor repeated softly. “And I’m not asking you for much; only a piece of advice. We need to know--”

We?! Are you telling me you brought that abomination to your precious Avengers? How cute,” Loki sneered, glaring daggers at Thor. “If only I had known earlier that they could be taken down that easily…”

Just a dream.

A really, really bad dream.

This lousy world must’ve finally got to him.

To think of the Avengers playing a foster family for a small jötunn… Loki felt on the verge of hysterical laughter. And here he thought that the idea of Thor traveling to Jötunheimr to make amends would be the most ridiculous thing he’d heard in years to come.

On days like this, he really regretted his decision to stay in Midgard. Perhaps if he had chosen an eternity in Asgard’s prison cell, he would’ve been spared these suggestions.

“…not asking you to take it in, after all--”

Oh, well thank you kindly,” Loki sneered, returning back to the present. “No, you’re not asking me to take care of it, only suggesting that I should know how to do it because we’re of the same species! As if that would somehow make me know how it all works!”

It was like Thor forgot that they’d been raised together in Asgard.

Like it was everything he saw in Loki ever since finding out about his true origins; a frost giant.

Oh, screw it all. Loki summoned magic to his hands, seething, and watched Thor back away in apparent confusion.

“You’re asking for my advice? Well, here it comes; put that thing right where you took it, unless you want it to distract the Avengers from fighting me.”

The blast of energy he conjured was weak, but still enough to send unsuspecting Thor flying into the nearest tree.

When he only looked at Loki with sad eyes and sat up, shaking the leaves out of his hair instead of reaching out and summoning Mjölnir, Loki cried, cursed darkly, set the poor shrub on fire and disappeared, dissatisfied, but also not in the mood for a real fight, either.

~*~*~

“So apparently she’s not allergic to milk, but hell, does she detest it,” Clint mused, watching Steve try and fail to feed the small writhing baby.

Steve was enduring it all stoically, with barest hints of frustration showing on his face.

“Any news?” he asked hopefully, looking up at Thor, who has just entered the living room. At the sight of his dark expression his face dropped, though.

“Guess it didn’t go well,” Tony muttered for him. Thor only sighed, confirming their suspicions.

“It didn’t,” he said wistfully.

“Not to be disrespectful or anything… but why come to Loki for advice, anyway?” Steve asked carefully, making a pained sound in the back of his throat when the child squirmed and spat out the bottle again, sobbing pitifully. Without another word, Natasha took her from his arms in an unspoken agreement that they would take turns until at least one of them became successful.

“Disrespectful, my ass,” Clint snorted darkly, but shut up quickly under the others’ disproval glares.

“My brother is… very knowledgeable and intelligent in more matters than I can count,” Thor said with unease. “I supposed he could have an answer to our struggle as well; I supposed wrong.”

The way he refused to meet their eyes was weird, if not suspicious, and Tony frowned, forgetting about his search history for a moment.

Something seemed off. Granted, Thor has always been sketchy about his way of finding Loki whenever he really wanted to, but also he has always been the most open among them all; the way he acted now made it clear he had something to hide, which was… unusual, to say the least.

As the child wailed again, Tony decided that it could wait.

“For fuck’s sake, will it ever calm down and stay quiet?!” Clint whined, throwing his hands up and marching to the elevators. “I’m going – for a walk, I dunno.”

“We can’t call her ‘it’ forever,” Natasha commented absently, ignoring his departure whatsoever and making shushing sounds along with trying to get the baby to eat. “She should have a name.”

After a moment of silence, Tony took it upon himself to break it to Thor, who seemed too deeply immersed in his thoughts and failed to notice that all eyes fell to him.

“Uh, Thor, buddy, any heads up here?”

Thor jerked up, visibly startled, and looked around with a somewhat lost expression.

“I—What is it? I’m sorry, my friends, I must have been… distracted,” he admitted guiltily, and smiled at Natasha’s vain attempts faintly.

“A name,” she grunted. “We should definitely pick a name for the little one.”

“And since you’re the one who brought her in, well,” Tony shrugged and then sighed when Thor only looked at him, puzzled. “Any ideas? Or should we go on and just call her ‘Baby’?”

“I have a feeling that this would’ve been Clint’s point to say ‘gross’, and on this account, I would’ve been inclined to agree with him,” Steve pointed out. “Thor, perhaps you have any more… appropriate ideas? Since she’s from the other world, and you’re the only one who knows anything about its traditions…”

“I’m afraid I do not, to be honest,” Thor shook his head regretfully and shifted on the couch to look at Natasha’s chair more fully. “Jötunheimr is… beyond my area of expertise, sadly, and I know nothing about their naming rituals.”

“Seriously, though, we need a name,” Tony sat straighter, looking at them all. Bruce decided to stay in his laboratory, so it was up to the four of them, it seemed. “I mean, hard to file legal documents without a name.”

Apart from the soft whimpers and hiccups from the child, the room went very silent, and it was Tony’s turn to find himself on the other end of three disbelieving stares.

“Uh… What?”

“You’re making her legal papers?” Natasha asked, incredulous.

“Duh,” Tony frowned and sent her a sour look. “I might not be a fan of paperwork, but even I know that it needs to be done. Or did you think it’s a good idea to just keep a baby that virtually doesn’t even exist in this world?”

“No,” she admitted, tilting her head curiously. “I supposed we’d run it through Fury later, though. Didn’t expect you to take the initiative.”

“Doesn’t Pepper do those things for you?” Steve cut in, sounding equally surprised.

The amount of trust these people put in him, seriously.

At least Thor looked more amused than anything, which probably counted as being on his side, so there was that.

“Hate to break it to you,” Tony drawled sarcastically, “but if I didn’t know how to do all these things myself, not even Pepper could’ve possibly saved me from losing the company. Doesn’t mean I like it, though.”

“I didn’t mean…” Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, clearly embarrassed, and cleared his throat. “Sorry. I didn’t want to imply… that.”

For a second, Tony entertained the thought of teasing the hell out of Steve for that, feigning offence and sulking for as long as he could remember to keep the act, but a miserable sob decided it for him once again.

“Nah, it’s fine. I’ll let Pepper handle the most of it, anyway, just preparing the ground for her – oh, for the love of--! Give her to me,” he grunted, jumping up and walking to Natasha to take both the baby and the bottle of milk from her unresisting arms.

“Tony, are you sure—”

Yes, Steve, I’m sure I can’t just listen her vainly try and express her suffering to us without at least trying to help,” he muttered angrily, rocking the baby on his knee. As it turned away from the bottle with a wince that looked nearly painful, he hummed thoughtfully and squeezed a drop of milk on his wrist.

“I have already done it,” Natasha mused, crossing her arms and stretching her legs in front of her.

“Have you, now,” Tony called back, getting up and walking in the direction of the communal kitchen. “And what did you check, exactly?”

“For it to be warm enough for the baby,” Steve called from behind, trailing after him with a worried frown. “Tony… Perhaps I should just take her--”

Tony ignored him and promptly stuck the bottle into the freezing camera, holding the baby securely against his chest, where it continued to squirm and fuss. Steve made an indignant noise, but Tony cut him down with a glare before he could even say a word.

“Warm enough? Steve, she’s cold. She’s so cold that my arms are slowly going numb; didn’t it occur to you that we might be as burning for her as she’s freezing to us?”

Steve’s face went blank so fast it was almost funny. Tony would’ve snickered if he wasn’t too preoccupied with the baby trying to get away from him as best as she could in given circumstances.

“Seriously,” he said instead, waiting another minute before opening the fridge again and reaching for the bottle that had successfully cooled down a notch. “I know I’m a genius, but I’d think one of you would realize that sooner, since how good around children you all are.”

Coming from the way Steve winced guiltily, he had struck a nerve again, guessing the reason behind his worries correctly.

Yeah, well, figures. That one he could understand.

Who would trust Tony Stark with a child, after all? If he was in their place, he probably wouldn’t have.

This time, however, as he offered her the bottle, the baby made a face as if she was going to make a fuss again, but after a moment started sucking greedily, staring at him in wonder.

“Yeah, there we go,” Tony muttered softly, smiling with a corner of his mouth. He would’ve thought that staring into blood red eyes would be creepy, but against all odds, it wasn’t. Or perhaps he was just feeling more relieved that she finally stopped crying than creeped out of his mind.

Any of two worked, really.

“Is she—what did you do?” Natasha asked in a shushed voice, having appeared in the door silently.

“Gave her cold milk, apparently,” Steve replied for him and shrugged helplessly. “That’s… a good thinking, I must admit.”

“Because she’s cold,” Natasha muttered more to herself, eyes slightly wider than Tony used to see, and finally nodded. “At least now we know how to feed her; I was almost ready to try the raw meat.”

“Please,” Tony rolled his eyes and carefully backed to the living room with them again. “She’s not a demon; she was just hungry. Easy to confuse, but the difference is there, I assure you.”

The child remained ignorant to their movements, still sucking at the bottle, eyes slowly drooping from all the exhaustion of the day; it was a sight Tony has never thought he’d ever witness in his entire life, and yet here he was.

It wasn’t even that he didn’t… want children; it was complicated, so at some point in his life, he just elected not to think about it at all.

Worked fine for him. Most of the times.

Times like this, though?

“Don’t be so greedy; it’s all yours,” he promised the tiny child, making sure that his arms were covered securely by the long sleeves and that there was no skin on skin contact – for both theirs sakes, really.

The girl looked up with tired eyes again and cooed at him, refusing to drink any more for now. Tony felt his heart all but melt.

“You need to burp her now, I believe,” Steve said quietly; Tony looked at him briefly, having almost forgotten that they were still here, watching him feed the child, and nodded, shifting her in his arms carefully.

She sniffed once after having successfully ruined his shirt, effectively proving that at least in this she wasn’t so different from human children, and then suddenly patted her tiny hand to the circle of Tony’s reactor where it was shining dimly through the dark shirt, startling him.

“You alright?” Natasha asked immediately, apparently noticing him tense at the sudden move; Tony nodded, watching the baby closely, but she appeared more hypnotized by the light than frightened or threatened.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” he muttered, smiling when she flailed and snuggled closer to it.

And then a smile promptly fell from his face as he watched the blue color slowly bleed away from her skin.

“Uh… guys?” he called in a strained voice, as if the others weren’t looking at them all the while. They couldn’t see her tiny face pressed into his chest, though, and didn’t see it become pale, or her eyes turn to hazel when she blinked for the last time before yawning and drifting off on him. “Guys? I… think I broke her.”

Which was when the rest of her skin lost its color, and Tony was left with an absolutely normal, human-looking baby in his arms, gradually warming up with every breath.

The startled looks were the only answer he got.

~*~*~

In the end, after hours on hours of (mostly) friendly bickering, they settled for a name.

“Why not Athena, though? The only aliens we have the pleasure of knowing are basically gods, and she was a goddess, too, you know. Granted, she was Greek, not old Norse, but eh, close enough,” Tony shrugged, stretching and watching the video feed from the newly furnished nursery.

“This is just… I don’t know. Sounds weird,” Natasha brushed him off. She was watching him funny for the better part of the evening, and Tony couldn’t quite grasp the reason behind it, but as they had a more important task at hand, he let it slide.

For now, at least.

“Maybe some asgardian name would be more fitting, after all? Thor?” Steve prompted carefully; Thor, who kept oddly silent since he came back that afternoon, only shook his head.

“She is not of Asgard. I don’t see how that would be more fitting, and if you are to take her as a real family… if she is to consider this world her home now – she could as well have a name from it.”

Bruce hummed quietly, going through his own tablet.

“What about Barbara? A traveler from a foreign land… sounds just about right, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, no. Just imagine her growing up with other children calling her Barbie, like she’s a doll,” Tony feigned a shudder and grimaced.

“Hope?” Steve offered. Tony grunted and rubbed at his chin thoughtfully.

“Doesn’t sound too bad,” he had to admit. “A little farfetched, maybe, but… not bad.”

The picture from the nursery changed, and Jarvis zoomed in on the fussing baby. She was still sleeping, just tossing around, clearly unused to her new clothes; Tony smiled with a corner of his mouth.

“Hope,” he repeated thoughtfully, thinking of the moment she changed into a human baby in his arms. “Yeah. Sounds just about right.”

“Huh,” Bruce hummed with a small smile on his lips. “So I guess it is settled, then.”
                                                                                                                                                            
Natasha and Steve exchanged amused glances; Thor shrugged with a small smile of his own, nodding his approval.

“At least it’s a good thing that we don’t have to decide on the last name,” Natasha smirked and stood up, cracking her spine. “Because I don’t think I could stand another two hours of this.”

“…Wait, what?”

~*~*~

Officially, Loki’s status on Midgard was that of a supervillain. He was a wanted criminal, and SHIELD worked hard to get at him, although it was mostly in vain.

But it’s the effort that counts, as they say.

He was even somewhat proud of it; at some point you stop looking at the reasons behind your recognition and learn to take what you can, and Loki could say that he had learnt it masterfully after having spent centuries in Thor’s shadow.

In Asgard, he had always been a second prince, Thor’s younger brother, a nuisance.

Here, however, he was a nuisance supreme, and he was second to none in the art of supervillainy – he made sure of it, rather meticulously at times.

To be fair, it was probably a mutually beneficial contribution – seeing that he was more interested in mischief than what this world considered more severe crimes, the SHIELD must have been quiet content to keep the things as they were, never putting any real effort into locking him up, and Loki could enjoy his pranks, his freedom and his face on top of the list of most wanted superhumans.

All in all, life on Midgard… wasn’t as bad.

At least, he was getting used to it. It had its good sides, after all – like morning coffee and pastries, for example. Add people watching to the mix, and he was as good as sold.

His favorite spot in the city had all three options, which was probably why it was his favorite in the first place.

Midgardians, he had found out, were all fickle, constantly busy and always rushing people. They could be deeply involved in some breaking topic only to forget all about it the next day.

They almost never recognized him in the crowd. When he was clad in his battle robes and had his infamous helmet on? Oh, then they knew what was coming for them; but like this, drinking his coffee in a small corner café, dressed in casual clothes and with his hair pulled back?

He was just a regular customer, one of them, and was rarely deemed worthy of a second glance.

And frankly, it was exactly the way he preferred.

People hurrying for work; a small child throwing a tantrum on the other side of the street; a pair of two young girls discussing something animatedly at the table next to him…

He loved the sheer, all-encompassing chaos of this world. Loki took a deep breath, enjoying the smell of fresh coffee, and smiled to his thoughts.

The girls stood up and left, still agitated, still snickering, and he watched them leave with curious eyes. Sometimes he preferred not to listen to actual words, entertaining himself with empty guesses of what could have been the subject of someone’s attention at the moment.

From the corner of his eye, Loki noticed that they had left a newspaper on their table, and hummed to himself over his steaming cup. It might have been a coincidence, of course; or it might have been something that he would witness a lot of other people discuss over the day. Intrigued, he looked around and reached for the paper.

And promptly choked on his coffee, spitting it all over the first page.

“From the most eligible bachelor to a bachelor with a baggage: Tony Stark became a father?”

The picture under the headline showed Tony Stark smiling brightly at the cameras, with a baby sleeping peacefully on his chest in a sling.

Not even a week after Thor had returned from Jötunheimr with a child and tried to rope Loki into helping them with it; Loki knew that the fate had quite a sense of humor, but not even he could believe in such coincidences.

He didn’t notice the paper smolder in his hands.

This was…

Well, this certainly wasn’t a bad dream anymore, that he was sure about.

A pity, that.

He quickly downed the rest of his coffee and left, leaving a pile of ash in the place of a scandalous paper.

And just as he assumed, there were much more in the city, whenever he went.

“A happy father or an unfortunate accident?”

“Did Tony Stark change his ways, or fell prey to a gold digger?”

“The mysterious mrs. Stark: who is she?”

Loki didn’t bother to read any of them.

So the Avengers decided to take the child in, after all; he sneered, silently fuming as he considered where to let off the steam.

How noble of them. How noble of Thor, of all people; the frost giants were hated among all realms, and Thor had always been their most ardent adversary, yet here they were.

Was it his idea of redemption?

Some sort of a misplaced guilt leading him to believe that saving – kidnapping, really – a monster baby and raising it up as a funny little pet would make him feel better about his prior onslaughts on their lands?

Or did he really only want just that, an exotic pet to show around, to gloat that the Mighty Thor had tamed a beast from the frozen lands?

Loki yelled in dismay and turned in his spot, sending a fireball into the park’s gate and feeling his clothes give way for a more formal armor as the people cried in terror and scattered away from him and the melting metal.

“I have heard,” he drawled silkily, “that one of your Avengers is on paternal leave now. Say, should we have a little celebration of our own at the merry occasion?”

His next spell boiled the water in a small pond, lifeless forms of colorful fish breaking its surface.

Oh, it was gonna be fun.

~*~*~

“So, apparently Loki is demolishing the Morningside park as we speak,” Steve hurriedly announced to the team as they all gathered in the living room after the alert. “And we better stop him before he fully redecorates it, because Fury said that he’s been working hard on making it resemble a desert.”

“Oh, sunava,” Clint muttered, already picking at his arrowheads. Tony cursed under his breath as well.

And to think that it all had been going so well for the past week or so.

Well, a man could dream, right?

“Someone should probably stay behind,” Bruce suggested hesitantly, voicing his concerns. “You know, to watch over Hope.”

For a very uncomfortable moment, all eyes turned to Tony – and even after a week of it happening on regular occasions, Tony was still creeped out by them, thank you very much. It wasn’t like he was… her dad, or anything; it was just that she took better to him than to anyone else in the first hours of her being here.

The team seemed to be of other opinion, though.

“Jarvis can watch her,” he muttered, running his fingers through his hair. It was just their luck that Hope had been sleeping when the alert came; at least this way, they didn’t have to worry about calming her down before leaving. “Right, buddy?”

You can always rely on me, sir,” Jarvis replied politely, to which Tony grinned and showed the team two thumbs up.

“See? If she needs anything, he will call in a nanny or something.”

Steve looked doubtful, but seemed to relent under the pressure of time.

“Fine,” he grunted. “But we’re talking about it when we get back.”

“Uh-huh,” on his wristband, Tony activated the suit, and within moments was fully armored and on his way to the launch pad. “See you there!” he called out, dropping the faceplate and rocketing into the sky.

“You spent what, four days with a baby at home and already so eager for action?” Clint’s mocking voice came over the comms.

Tony chuckled, hoping that they won’t hear his unease in the sound.

Because the truth was?

Hell yeah, he needed this, and he couldn’t care less if it was just Loki throwing a tantrum as he was prone to or a full-blown alien invasion all over again.

Anything to take his mind off the latest developments in his life.

It wasn’t that he got tired of a child already; with the novelty of her presence and the rest of the Avengers equally mesmerized by it, there was plenty of time for rest, work and whatnot. Seriously, it was almost unfair how they all labeled him ‘the father’, since they all spent more or less equal amounts of time with Hope.

It was more of the opposite, and it freaking scared him.

He was not a father material.

He got used to the thought over the years; had Howard’s example all too bright in front of his eyes, and then came the company and the realization that in the end, his wishes didn’t matter. It wasn’t about him, it was about Stark Industries this and Stark Industries that, and even if it wasn’t – well.

Tony wasn’t the most attentive person, either. He loved his work; couldn’t live without it – and a child deserved more than that.

And then, of course, Iron Man and eventually the Avengers added to the mix.

He was content with his life. Happy, even; he didn’t have any regrets or dreams that were impossible to achieve with his style of life (namely, he never dreamed of having a family). The Avengers kind of became his family anyway; and it was good – it was right in its own way.

But a child?

It was a week since she appeared in their lives, and still he was freaking out non-stop on the inside.

A good thing he arrived at the destination before he could work himself into a complete frenzy.

Just as expected, Loki was there, pacing like a caged animal over a small opening – that Tony was pretty sure wasn’t there this morning. Not that he was particularly familiar with this park, but judging from the shredded leaves and sticks all around the place, there used to be at least several bushes.

Loki noticed his approach and sneered, stiffening and taking a battle stance; Tony rose his arms in a mocking gesture as he landed a few steps away from the infuriated god.

“Well, if this isn’t the newly-made father,” Loki sneered, baring his teeth and holding his scepter so tightly Tony could see his knuckles turn white.

He could also see just how worked up Loki was – and not in the usual way for their almost tediously regular fights. He wasn’t thrumming with mischievous energy, eager for the challenge and so stupidly proud of himself for being superior than mortals.

It was probably saying a lot about his life that Tony could see the difference in his enemy’s mental state, but honestly, it was painfully clear that Loki was distressed and no-joke furious.

Which meant that it most likely won't be a simple warming up, but a real fight, for once.

Which, in turn, meant that Tony was fucked and oh so very wrong to have come alone. He knew Loki could beat him up without as much as breaking a sweat, should he be so inclined – as a team, the Avengers could make him work for it, but one on one with a god they had much more chances to end up dead than win against him.

Especially if they had no super strength or regenerative powers and were very much mortal, thank you very much.

He only had a brief moment to collect himself before the first blow came, grunting when the bolt of energy hit him squarely across his chest. Even prepared, he still skidded back a few feet, charging the repulsors on a full power.

Loki brushed it off like it was nothing, eyes gleaming manically as he twisted and swirled his stuff again. This time, Tony managed to dodge, and was met with a blaring warning across his HUD when his side collided with the sharp point of real Loki’s skepeter as the one who just attacked him disappeared into the thin air with a malicious grin.

The gritting sound of metal shook him, and he aimed at Loki’s face with little hesitation. Before he could fire, Loki grasped his wrist, easily denting the metal and damaging the fine wiring, halting the charge and causing the repulsor to only blurt a few sparks.

“How rude,” he hissed, effectively holding Tony still for the moment. “What would the little one think of its father burning faces off his enemies?”

“Hey, at least I’m not attacking from the back,” Tony countered through gritted teeth, various failure messages almost blocking his field of vision. The brief pause was enough for him to direct all power to thrusters and shake Loki off as he took off, wincing at the pain in his wrist and slightly wobbling in the air.

“No, but you are running like a coward,” Loki mocked, gathering magic in his free hand and sending a fireball his way. With one repulsor malfunctioning, it was harder to dodge, and he could feel the heat through the tear in his side as he barely avoided being hit.

If he wasn’t so busy trying not to get killed, he’d probably be concerned about Loki being so deadly serious about the whole, well, trying to kill him business. Honestly, it’s been quite some time since the trickster last put his heart into it, and Tony really couldn’t say he’d missed it.

“What, you wanna fight? Fear not, we’ll give you a fight,” he grunted, landing heavily and sending a small rocket Loki’s way. “A good ol’ asskicking; how do you like it?”

The rocket froze in the air midway, and Tony felt his eyes widen when Loki twisted his hand, grinning sharply, and sent it back where it came from.

“Language, Stark!” Loki yelled over the explosion, laughing heartily, if humorlessly.  Tony coughed, having managed to fall down just in time for the rocket to hit a tree instead of him. “Are you talking around the baby this way? My, where are the social services looking!”

There was another blast of green energy hitting the ground dangerously close to his shoulder; Tony had a suspicion Loki only missed because of the dark smoke clouding him.

Where the hell were other Avengers?

For once, he regretted his decision to turn the communication off.

Steve was going to be so mad at him—

The sky above them suddenly darkened, and Tony had never been more happy to hear the roaring thunder in his life.

Loki scowled, turning away with a dramatic swirl of green cape, and Tony finally risked bolting upright, taking the short break to turn on the comm.

—ony?! What’s going on there?”

“Hey, Steve,” he chuckled, checking the stats for his suit while he still could. Overall, it wasn’t that bad; Loki managed to break the outer layer of metal on his side and damage his left repulsor, but on closer inspection, it wasn’t that critical. He’s had worse.

Still, it didn’t mean he wasn’t pissed about it.

Thor went offline too,” came Natasha’s voice. “Loki’s magic must be interfering with the signal.”
 
“Yeah,” Tony winced, taking off and looking at the sky for the Quinjet. It was rapidly getting closer, less than a minute away. “That’s totally what happened. Great timing, by the way; Reindeer games here is seems really angry today, dunno what’s got into him.”

Oh, you mean you’ve just had your ass totally kicked? Well, it’s okay, happens to everyone, you know,” Clint mused. “But feel free to blame it on Loki being especially pissy today, of course.”

“Har har,” Natasha sounded around as unamused as Tony felt. “Although Clint does have a point – it’s not like Loki is pleasant to deal with any other day, Tony. Dropping off now.”
 
Despite the jet already landing close by, it was now barely distinguishable and only thanks to the signal lights – what started as a dramatic thunder that followed Thor’s appearance mostly for show was now turning into a full-blown storm. It was almost impossible to balance in the air due to the wind, and it was harder to keep balance with one stabilizer out of commission to start with, so instead of meeting the rest of the team Tony had to drop back down, opting to join Thor in fighting Loki.

Although it felt like a tough feat.

The gods were literally fighting in the middle of thunderstorm, the wind swirling leaves and sticks around them in a whirlwind, their capes flapping like wild, making them both look more like elemental beings than humans. Which, in a way, was probably true, Tony mused, watching Loki twist and turn and lunge at his brother at a speed that was certainly inhuman. Thor wasn’t falling behind either, his lightning on par with each and every bolt of Loki’s magic.

“Wow,” Steve said quietly beside him. Tony hadn’t noticed their approach, but all things considered, it wasn’t surprising.

“See? When I said he was angry, I meant it,” Tony muttered, bracing himself against the wind.

Loki snapped at Thor, looking absolutely furious, and yelled in rage when Thor dodged yet another attack, meeting his scepter with a blow of his hammer.

They’ve had enough fights in the past, knew what Loki was capable of – knew what Thor was capable of, and he always fought harder when it wasn’t his brother they were fighting – but this time, the gods were fighting with all they’ve got, and it was a rare sight.

Am I the only one who feels kind of like a third wheel?” Clint murmured over the comm, probably having taken the cover somewhere above them.

Tony had to admit that this time, he really did have a point.

It looked like Loki had all but forgotten about the rest of them, when usually he tried to get at everyone – almost as if he mockingly cared for no one to be left behind. Now, though, he was far too preoccupied with Thor.

Or whoever tried to charge him, Tony thought suddenly. It was just that Thor had the highest chances of standing against him out of them all.

They’ve been shouting something at each other, Loki’s voice mocking and shrill and Thor’s a loud roar, but the words were lost amongst the wind and the sounds of fight.

“Okay, we can’t just stand here,” Steve suggested uncomfortably.

“Yeah, it’s certainly new,” Tony groused even as Natasha hummed agreeably. But that was the thing; they weren’t a team for nothing, and right now there wasn’t much place left for any teamwork.

“Seems like we have to trust Thor to handle it,” Natasha said. “And if he fails…”

You can always count on me,” Bruce wedged in from his position in the relative security of the jet.

Even as worked up as Loki seemed right now, with Hulk they probably could still beat him down.

It’s been a long time since it had to come to this, but considering the rate the whole situation was coming out of hand…

Steve seemed to come to the same conclusion.

“Thor! It can’t go on like this, the storm is getting dangerous!” he yelled even as Tony tried to get closer, aiming his one good repulsor at Loki – well, in his direction, anyway. He was moving too fast, switching places with Thor too often for any of them to risk a good hit. 

Surprisingly enough, they’ve been heard, and Loki finally remembered that they weren’t alone with Thor. Just as before, he deflected the next blow by simply disappearing – whether it was an illusion all along or teleportation, Tony had no idea, but fully sympathized with Thor’s bellow of rage.

“Yes, listen to your captain, brother,” Loki spat from behind Thor – only it wasn’t just Thor, it was all of them, and coming from Clint’s sputter over the comm, a copy of trickster appeared behind him as well, whenever he was hiding.

Now it was more like it.

The illusions didn’t react to their attacks, as they've been prone to, shimmering in the air and laughing at  their efforts, mocking and threatening with false moves.

“Enough, brother! This is coming too far!” Thor growled, hitting one of Loki’s with Mjölnir only for the hammer to fly through it. The illusion mocked a grimace of pain, clutching at its sternum, before straightening and laughing.

“Is it?” the closest to Tony hissed. He fired, and it reappeared on the other side, leaning to whisper in his ear. “Are you scared, Stark? Afraid that you won’t be coming back to the little one?”

Tony blinked, too dazed and frankly too pissed to even try to attack the illusion again. It was pointless anyway; instead of firing the repulsor he had in its face, he took a lucky guess and brought his other elbow back with the full force.

The illusions let out a collective gasp of pain and dissipated, and Tony had just enough time to spin around and grab the still invisible god by the neck.

It probably wasn’t doing much for him, but hell, was it a nice feeling.

“I’ve dreamed about it since you threw me out of the window,” he cheered as Loki’s face twisted into an ugly grimace – but it didn’t look like rage, not like before.

For a moment, he almost looked panicked by showing too much, and then he narrowed his eyes, bared his teeth—

And just like that, before anyone had a chance to come closer, Tony’s fingers clenched into a fist in an empty air.

~*~*~

In the end, the only ones who came out somewhat worse for the wear were Tony and Thor. Tony had his suit damaged and a nasty bruise on his wrist, while Thor was covered in bruises and scratches where Loki managed to get him - which was a lot, surprisingly. He didn’t seem to be in pain, though, but was uncharacteristically silent and gloomy on the way back, picking at the torn edge of his cape with a deep frown.

Absently twiddling his dysfunctional gauntlet, Tony decided that it was one hell of a fight anyway. Perhaps not the most brutal they had, despite Loki’s wrecking mood, but one of the weirdest for sure – and that was including the brief invasion of slug-like creatures on the east Manhattan that exploded with glitter when attacked and were totally Loki’s fault as well.

“Jarvis, how’s Hope?” he asked thoughtfully as they entered the hangar at the tower’s base.

“She appears to be fine, sir,” Jarvis replied for everyone to hear. “In fact, she has just woke up, but didn’t show any signs of distress.”
 
“Good,” he hummed, drumming his fingers on his knee. “Keep an eye on her, buddy.”

Always, sir.”
 
From the corner of his eye he caught Steve smiling softly and cocked an eyebrow questioningly.

“It’s nothing,” Steve shook his head, but the fond smile said otherwise. So did Bruce’s amused expression, come to think of it. “It’s just – good to see you so…”

“Fatherly,” Natasha snorted, turning off the jet’s systems. At Tony’s affronted huff she only rolled her eyes, clapping him on the shoulder as she walked past him. “No offence; it really suits you,” she added more softly.

Tony shrugged somewhat stiffly, opting to stay in the suit until he got to the workshop, and eyed all of his teammates uneasily as they all walked towards the elevators.

Nobody seemed to think much of this fight.

“It’s not that, actually,” he admitted.

“Oh come on, man, it’s not like we’re judging or anything,” Clint laughed, and Tony scowled, flipping him off even as the others chuckled as well.

“No, I didn’t mean it like that—veeeery funny,” he pinned Clint down with a glare when he burst out giggling. “Let’s just leave my issues alone for a moment, okay? Because it’s really not about just them.”

His seriousness must have broken through at last, the smiles slowly fading as everyone looked at him, clearly puzzled.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Loki says a whole bunch of shit during fights,” he turned to Thor, raising both arms placatingly, “no offence, big guy, but that’s true – he never shuts up. So maybe it’s really nothing, but is it just me, or was he really far too preoccupied with the whole ‘Avengers child’ thing?”

The suggestion earned him a few doubtful glances and a curious little flinch from Thor.

“You think he meant to target Hope?” Steve asked seriously.

“Hell if I know,” Tony muttered, frowning even as Thor fidgeted in place. “I just don’t see why else he would mention her every other second.”

“He would?” Clint blinked. “I didn’t notice.”

“Yeah, well, you weren’t there.”

“Oh, right, I forgot you arrived there first,” he rolled his eyes. “So what, he compared you to the child or something? I don’t think that’s the reason to panic, really.”

“Clint,” Natasha cut him down drily.

“If that is the case, we should probably warn Fury,” Steve suggested, ignoring the bickering. “If he attempts to break into the tower next…”

“Thor?  Is there anything we should know about Loki’s hatred for little children?” Natasha, ever the perceptive one, asked gently. It still seemed to startle Thor from his thoughts, and he looked at the rest of the team somewhat guilty.

 “Nay,” he answered somewhat reluctantly, shrugging and frowning deeper. “I do not think that shall be necessary.”
Tony cocked an eyebrow, curiosity adding to the confusing mix of worry and unease. By now it was clear that something was going on, if not from Thor’s manner of speech, then from all the nervous ticks he wasn’t usually known to having; what exactly it was, he couldn’t put a finger on, though.

“Did Loki say anything while you were fighting?” Steve inquired. “It could be important if he--”

“No,” Thor interrupted him sternly, suddenly recollecting himself and standing taller, at once a powerful, confident god again. “T’was merely… family issues, my friends; nothing to be concerned about, trust my word.”

“I guess that’s one way of finishing this conversation,” Tony muttered, watching him turn away and head for the hangar doors instead of the lifts.

He made a mental note to investigate the topic further later, perhaps when Thor would be more pliant and preferably less sober, but for now there were more pressing matters to attend to, like his suit and—

“I’m afraid little Hope demands your attention now, sir. She appears to grow bored by the second.”

Right. And the baby.

It probably spoke volumes that for a moment, he hesitated, unsure which came first; but then Bruce smiled and clapped him on the metal shoulder gently.

“Go fix your suit; we’ll watch her for now.”

~*~*~

What would have been a sensible thing to do after the unusually violent fight with Loki was probably improving the Tower’s security systems, changing them to high alert, and following Fury’s instructions on – Tony wasn’t even sure on what about, because it was always the same and basically came to ‘no talking to strangers and telling the big bad director if you saw anyone doing anything weird’. Fury might have been somewhat pissed about the latest addition to the Avengers family, since Hope hardly classified as a valuable ally and could be easily considered an easy target, thus becoming a great inconvenience to the team, but knew better than to fight a team of superheroes on something like this and agreed that her safety came first.

Tony wasn’t exactly known for always making sensible things, however, and while he did up the security, he also did another, less than sensible thing – namely sought Loki out.

Because honestly, it was kinda personal. After all, he was the so-called father, and Loki did point that out specifically – which could still mean nothing, of course, but he really didn’t feel like taking the risk.

 It was easier said than done, though.

Literally the only one who could find Loki was Thor, who wasn’t all that keen on sharing his secret talent with anyone else, for obvious reasons; and if it was that simple of a task, they would have probably captured Loki already.

Not that it deterred him much.

“Are you looking for someone, Stark?” a silky voice asked over his shoulder, making him jump in surprise, cursing as he swallowed an undignified yelp.

Well, figures; of course Loki would appear right when he decided to take a break and grab a coffee while studying his map of Loki’s most frequent appearances.

What a drama queen.

Loki huffed and brushed off his glare, walking around the table and gracefully dropping on the opposite chair.

“You do realize that this thing is completely useless in your quest?” he nodded at the tablet in Tony’s hand, and Tony scowled, turning it off.

It wasn’t that Loki was wrong – it was pretty useless, since his appearances were always chaotic and never followed a certain pattern. But he wasn’t going to just admit that the god was right, now was he?

“Useless or not, I did find you,” he stated instead, grinning sharply. Loki rolled his eyes, leaning back and crossing his arms on his chest, a picture of disinterest.

“I’d say it was the other way round, actually.”

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, princess,” Tony smirked. “You’re here now, so it did the job just fine.”

“Which brings us to the main question – why was it that you were looking for me in the first place?” Loki narrowed his eyes, giving Tony a suspicious once over.

“I thought it was the other way round?” Tony countered innocently, feeling a little triumph at the way Loki’s lips twitched – in a scowl or a smile, he couldn’t know. “Why did you decide to grace me with your godly presence?”

“I admit, when I realized that you were looking for me, I got curious,” he consented after a long pause, arching an eyebrow. “It was rather… unusual to find someone else but my foolish brother seeking me out.”

“Oh, so you knew I was trying to find you? Were you spying on me? I knew not even a god of mischief could resist  my charm,” Tony taunted, only for Loki to huff and sneer at him.

“Do not fool yourself, Stark. You are not as discreet as you seem to believe. That concerns avoiding my question,” he pointed out. “Why were you looking for me?”

“It’s nothing, really – you know, just wanted to chat a bit, since we hardly have time to catch up,” Tony snorted, words dripping with heavy sarcasm. “So how's it going? What's up? How do you do? Are you…”

“Enough,” Loki snapped, and for the first time Tony realized that this might have been a bad idea, after all.

But Loki was just sitting there across him, not attacking anyone, not even looking anything like the villain everyone knew – in a green t-shirt and dark jeans he was hardly easily recognized, what with the usual amount of layers he preferred.

“As far as I remember,” he drawled after a few moments of uncomfortable silence, “the last time you came alone to meet me didn’t end up well for you. Are you sure you want a repeat?”

“That depends,” Tony quipped. “Are you going to attack me again?”

Bluffing with a god of lies probably wasn’t a good idea, either, especially when he didn’t even have a suit on him, which – stupid, yeah but he didn’t expect to find Loki so soon, okay? Granted, he could call it in any moment, but in time it took the armor to get to him there would be nothing left to wear it, should Loki decide to assault him.

Loki huffed and leaned back, turning to look away almost petulantly.

“No,” he admitted tiredly. “You are no challenge to me, Tony Stark; why would I waste my time on fighting you? It’s like slapping a fly for you – annoying as it might be, killing it is hardly a feat that would bring you satisfaction, unless it’s been getting on your nerves especially hard,” with that, Loki gave him a pointed glare, a half-hearted threat that made Tony chuckle at the way it was phrased. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head, leaning back as well and taking a sip of his coffee.

“You and your insects metaphors,” he muttered. “I’d take offence, but I guess I’m in no place to argue right now.”

“I knew that didn’t call you genius for nothing,” Loki mocked, some amusement making its way into his eyes as he watched Tony carefully. It was like he’s been studying him, Tony realized with a start; come to think of it, Loki has never spent so much time looking at anyone he knew – mocking glances, threatening glares, sure, it was all there, but never staying for so long.

Well, wasn’t that interesting.

 “So is it a game of staring match that you were looking for?” Loki interrupted his thoughts, and Tony blinked. It made the god smirk. “If so, I believe you just lost, and I can leave now.”

This, Tony thought with a sudden clarity. This was what had been missing during their last fight. The easy banter with no real bite underneath; what could've qualified as friendly teasing between others, but was considered something more vicious just on the ground of them being enemies – this was what made him feel uneasy about the whole encounter, the lack of it in favor of something else, something dark and cruel behind Loki’s words.

The fact that it momentarily made him want to ask Loki if he was alright made him let out a slightly hysterical laughter. God, how was this his life?

“Are you well, Stark?” Loki wondered, somewhat confused, tilting his head to the side curiously. “Or is it the stress of being a hero finally taking its toll? Or,” his face went dark suddenly, “is it a new-found family that’s making you go mad?” He hissed the last words, leaning forward over the table, and his eyes gleamed unnaturally bright, poisonous green.

For a second, Tony almost felt frightened.

But really, it was convenient that Loki would bring up the topic himself; that was the reason he was here in the first place, after all.

“Yeah, about that,” Tony drawled lazily, arching an eyebrow when Loki seemed to stop in his track, apparently puzzled by his reaction – or the lack of thereof.

Oh, how tempted was Tony to shout the ‘what’s wrong with you’ in his face.

He had to remind himself that it was a god that once threw him out of the window he was thinking of for the urge to pass.

“What about it?” Loki bristled when he let that hang in the air instead of continuing.

“What’s up with, you know,” Tony shrugged, “the whole ‘family’ matter?” He made air quotes and rolled his eyes when Loki simply scowled harder at him. “Don’t take it personally, but the last time we… spoke, you seemed pretty obsessed with the topic,” he watched Loki closely and didn’t miss the way his face blanked, a dead giveaway he hit a sore spot.

Which spot it was and what it meant for Tony, there was no way of finding out now.

At least he hoped Loki wouldn’t change his mind about him being a harmless fly not worth the effort of killing.

“Funny thing you would ask,” Loki said slowly, expression still completely unreadable and voice dangerously devoid of emotions, “and make it seem that I’m the one concerned about the monster you took in.”

And there were those emotions again. At least now, with the way his hands gripped the table’s edge and his words shook with barely restrained fury, there was no need to guess how he felt about it.

Frankly, the feeling was mutual now.

“A monster?” he hissed right back, surprising even himself with how furious the notion made him feel. “Are you fucking kidding me? It’s a child, Loki, what’s your problem?!”

For a moment, Loki looked almost taken aback by his outburst, but seemed to overcome it just as fleetly.

“A child? Clearly you have no idea just what Thor brought back from his quest,” he sneered. “I am simply perplexed that someone claiming to be as smart as you would blindly agree to put his life in danger so foolishly – honestly, it’s insulting how easily you would put yourself into harm’s way, makes all my efforts worthless—”

“Wait there for a second, cowboy,” Tony interrupted him, flabbergasted and stunned by his words. Did they even make any sense? What the hell was inside Loki’s head? It was clearly way more messed up than he ever realized. “Seriously, what the fuck? I know parenting is no easy deal and all that, but ‘putting my life in danger’ sounds like a stretch, really – so tone it down, would you? Or are you afraid we won’t have as much time to kick your butt now that there’s a baby on the team? Well rest assured, it changes nothing,” he snarled. Now that he thought about it, it made sense that Loki would get jealous – after all, he tried rather hard to stay at the top of most wanted criminals list and never took well to competition, but it was ridiculous that it would extend to the child. If anything, he could expect them fighting even harder to maintain peace now that they had a little one of their own to protect.

“Afraid? Me? Oh, please,” Loki’s nostrils flared, and he glared at Tony. “You’re the one cherishing a monster; I am merely scandalized you would do so willingly – as I said, it brings to shame all the time I wasted on your lot, since evidently you could successfully destroy your team from inside out all by yourself.”

“You seem to be of a high opinion of this baby,” Tony growled. “Which is flattering, really, since it’s my daughter we’re speaking about, but I think that’s kinda too big of a responsibility for a three months old baby, and I think she could live without it for a few years, at least.”

Loki made a strained, furious noise, attracting several glances to their table, and got up to his feet in a fluid motion.

“You are an idiot, Stark,” he curled his lip in disgust. “Don’t say I didn’t warn when it becomes the beginning of your fall.”

And just like that, he disappeared in a blink.

Drama queen.

~*~*~

Loki materialized in his apartment, a small studio in a quiet secluded area of the city, and yelled, barely restraining the need to break something.

He grew fond of this place, after all, and was reluctant to leave it until he absolutely had to.

The meeting with the mortal made it hard, though.

Just who did he think he was?! He paced angrily, fuming and fisting his hands in silent rage.

And here he thought Midgard could no longer surprise him; apparently, he was wrong – people here were even more stupid than he gave them credit.
Taking in a jötunn offspring willingly, protecting its interests so vehemently – even after he pointed out just what exactly it was, a monster, a time-bomb—

He let out a shrill yell again, ignoring the muffled complaints coming from behind the apartment’s wall.

How could they be so blind?

He scowled and finally ceased his pacing, stopping in front of the window and looking out at the city unseeingly.

Why did he care? If the Avengers wanted to get rid of their team so creatively, it was their right; all the better for him – let them be too engrossed in the evil growing among them to take notice of his doings. Honestly, they weren’t even worth to fight if they were stupid like that.

He frowned as he caught a sight of his expression in the dim reflection on the window; his face was twisted with fury, far more than the situation called for.

There were reasons why the frost giants were hated and feared.

Did the Avengers really need more than one on their hands?

Absently, he touched the glass and let out a shuddering breath, watching it frost under his fingers. The temperature in the room dropped by several degrees, and his next breath left a cloud of steam in the air.

If it was anything like him, the child Thor brought here was an abomination that never should have been born.

Taking it in, giving it a family, denying it its true nature – it was against the natural order of things, and it was the reason the mortals were so weak.

And it would be their undoing.

He fisted his blue hand over the completely matted glass, gritting his sharp teeth.

He didn’t care. He didn’t.

Let them have their fun; let them think they could tame the beast, enjoy their new pet under the false pretense of being its family, and let it tear them down once it grew up. He had all the time in the world to witness that with his own eyes.

He smirked mirthlessly, seeing the light reflect from the frosted glass; two red dots, only really visible if you knew where to look, seemed to mock him.

Well, at least he could have his fun meanwhile.

~*~*~

In the end, Tony decided against telling the Avengers about his meeting with Loki. Literally the only thing it would achieve would be the team yelling at him for being so reckless and irresponsible, so what was the point?

Besides, he was too freaked out by his own fierce reaction to care what the others had to say on the matter.

It was one thing to feel protective about the child; it was small, and helpless, and already had been abandoned once – they all took to her strongly, so it wasn’t surprising.

But to call her his daughter like that?

Sure, on papers, it might have been true – although how the hell the others managed to rope him into being the one to adopt the child, he still was unsure.

It’s been a month since it all happened, time flying eerily fast, and he still couldn’t wrap his mind around it all. Well, a month wasn’t such a long time, he guessed.

It probably took longer than that to get used to the idea of being a father.

But that was the thing – whatever the rest of the team thought on the matter, whether it was their way of apologizing for not trusting him enough with the baby on his own (which, for the record, he could totally understand, no offence taken) or stubborn belief that it had to be him because of that bonding moment at the beginning, neither the papers nor the friendly teasing meant anything. He was as much of her father as Steve, or Clint, or Bruce were; hell, he was probably less of a father than any of them – no matter how much time he spent watching videos of how to change diapers on youtube, he wasn’t a natural like Steve, didn’t have Bruce’s experience of a doctor and Clint’s ability to shift into any role thanks to his SHIELD training.

So he never referred to himself as a father, or Hope as his daughter – until that encounter with Loki.

Which only made him freak out on a whole new level.

What did it mean? Was he taking too much of a responsibility? Was he really suited to be a father? It wasn’t too late to take that back, was it? She would probably be better off with someone else, someone who wasn’t raised by Howard, who wasn’t so easily engrossed by other projects—

At that point, he usually carefully stopped thinking altogether, forcibly breaking his line of thoughts.

It didn’t really matter. It wasn’t like he was a single father; the other Avengers provided more than a sufficient fallback, and all he had to do was to take care of a little infant as best as he could.

And he did his best.

It’s just – he still needed breaks sometimes. From the team, the Avengers business, and now the baby –since he had a growing suspicion that he wouldn’t be getting much of the latter soon.

Consequently, that was how he ran into Loki for the second time.

It was a late summer evening, the streets busy with people even in the middle of the week, and all he was looking for was a nice drink or two at the bar – not the god of mischief in a white dressing shirt joining him at the bar table.

“Why, Stark,” he mused with a cruel smirk, “I’ve been wondering how long it would take you to realize I was right; already hiding from that creature you had a mistake of calling your own?”

“Oh, get lost,” Tony muttered into his glass of whisky.

A drink or two, he said? Well, make it more like four.

“There’s no shame in admitting your faults,” Loki almost cooed, leaning forward and grinning triumphantly. “If it makes it easier for you, I’m not here to mock; I happen to be glad you gave my words a thought and came to the right conclusion – in fact, why don’t we drink for it?”

Tony tightened his lips and met his daring eyes adamantly.

“No,” he agreed calmly. “There’s no shame, you’re right – so how about you heed your own advice and admit it was you who’s in the wrong? Because honestly, Loki, it’s just a big bunch of bullshit you’re trying to sell me.”

The way Loki’s expression changed so quickly would have been amusing had it not been so scary.

“Is it, now?”

“It is,” Tony downed his drink and signaled for one more. “Now get drunk or get lost, whatever, I don’t care; just leave me alone.”

Loki regarded him quietly for a long moment, and then finally leaned back with a sneer, gracefully sliding from the stool.

“You are making a grave mistake, Stark. I wouldn’t care, but it pains me to see others so blind; surely you must know the feeling.”

Once again, he didn’t wait for Tony’s reply and disappeared among other patrons, successfully ruining his mood.

Tony considered really doubling the amount of drinks he’s been planning to have, but reluctantly decided against it.

Whatever Loki meant, whether it had a point or not – and boy, he really tried hard to make it sound convincing, didn't he? – it was not a reason to get seriously drunk on his first month of being a father.

Hope was going to be fine. He would make sure of it; no child was born a monster, and no child would grow to be one with proper care.

Somehow, that thought lifted his spirits better than any drink could.

~*~*~

The next time Loki found him, Tony wasn’t even surprised.

“No,” he simply said before Loki had a chance to open his mouth, falling into step with him as Tony walked through the Central park. He’s just had a long, boring meeting with the board and decided take a stroll back to the Tower to clear his mind a bit instead of taking a car.

“Why, you wound me, Stark,” Loki huffed. “I haven’t even said anything you could disagree with.”

“I just know what you’re going to say,” Tony rolled his eyes. “So no, I’m not running away from ‘the tiny monster’, neither am I mind-controlled or anything, whatever.”

Loki’s face went tight, almost pained, actually giving Tony a pause.

“Seriously,” he said, slowing his pace. “What’s your problem with her?”

“Oh, I have no problems,” Loki retorted darkly, stopping as well, following the few steps Tony did with angry eyes. “After all, I am not the one who decided to live with the monster, against all odds.”

“Will you stop it,” Tony groused, turning to face him fully. “Why do you keep calling her that?”

“Just what did Thor tell you when he brought it with him? Did he say it was an orphan he found somewhere on the street in this city?” Loki countered back instead of answering. Tony lifted both eyebrows, not expecting the question.

“Uh, no,” he frowned softly. “He said he found her abandoned in Jotun-something, that she’s a half-blood and they left her to die because of it, since apparently those aliens are frgging neo-nazis or something – and I’m pretty sure you heard the story? Didn’t Thor come to ask for your advice?”

Loki flinched, like he was prone to whenever Thor was mentioned, and his expression darkened even further.

“So you are aware that she is of frost giants,” he gritted out, once again, ignoring the question and fisting both hands. It took all Tony had not to step back or call for the suit – perhaps he should have, but until Loki showed a real sign of hostility, he didn’t want to provoke him. “Tell me, Stark, didn’t it occur to you why Thor wouldn’t bring her back to Asgard? Did neither of you think that it would be more appropriate to allow immortal beings who have been in contact with other worlds for centuries to take care of an alien runt?”

Huh.

Now he actually had a point; not that Tony was going to let him know.

“I guess royal family has other matters to attend to,” he shrugged, nonplussed. “And we’re the second best thing he has – besides, he left from here, made sense he would return back.”

Loki laughed, a hollow sound that made Tony’s skin crawl, and walked closer, circling him.

It would have been more menacing had he been in his full armor, but even in mortal clothes he could pull off the threatening look, Tony had to give it to him.

“Mortals,” he sneered pitifully. “You race is far too young to remember the anguish frost giants brought to your land; the great war that had happened many centuries ago that my people still haven’t forgotten – or forgiven,” he growled the last words, stopping in front of Tony. It was annoying how much taller he was even without his horns adding visual height, really; still, Tony looked up at him stubbornly, refusing to feel himself crowded. “In Asgard, there’s no single man who feels anything but hatred towards jötnar. Had Thor brought her there, she would have been killed on sight – but he has grown soft among your kind, and of course wouldn’t allow that to happen, even if that’s the way the things are.”

Tony knew Loki could be frightening when he wanted; he wasn’t ashamed to admit there were moments he was afraid of the god – but up until now, he wasn’t taking his threats seriously.

Until now, nothing Loki said about the baby made sense outside of his petulant whims, so Tony believed he was just that – jealous, bored, hell, even lonely, but not serious.

If what he just said was true, though…

He was suddenly glad they never lifted that tougher security.

His mind was running a thousand mile per hour; he could tell Loki how fucked up it was, but would it make any change? It that was the way people saw frost giants in Asgard, one man’s words would hardly affect the prince’s – of all people, really – opinion. He must have been raised to hate them, to see them as enemies – nothing Tony could come up with on such a short basis would make him realize that it didn’t have to be like this.

He could also tell Loki that if Thor changed so drastically, so could he, and then Loki would probably kill him.

He could—

He could do many things right now, he realized, because Loki was essentially allowing him to, actually waiting for him to reply instead of taking immediate action.

So far, Loki has only sought him out when he was alone. He has never appeared when they’ve been walking with Hope – and it might have been for several Avengers presented at once, but had he really wanted to, he could probably easily deal with them for the time being and – well, kill Hope, all before the reinforcements came and could stop him.

Why hadn’t he?

“Well, we’re not in Asgard, are we?” Tony said, as evenly as he could manage. “And that’s certainly not the way things are here. So sue us, we have no reason to hate big bad giants; times change and all that, and anyway, how is she responsible for anything that had happened a crapton of years ago? It’s none of her fault.”

He didn’t expect Loki to visibly shake at those words, baring his teeth silently, but not making a sound for a few moments.

“Did you,” he managed at last, fuming, “did you not hear a single word that I said, Stark?”

“I did,” Tony countered just as calmly as before, swallowing down his own nerves. “And I have one question for you – since we don’t realize how wrong we are, would you kill her?”

For a brief moment, he thought he saw something like panic rise in Loki’s eyes, expression falling raw open, not unlike it did the first time he brought up the topic during their fight and Tony managed to get him – and just like then, he disappeared without another word before Tony could grasp the meaning behind it all.

In the very same second, an arrow flew a bare millimeters from his face and pierced the place where Loki’s head had just been, cutting into a tree behind after not meeting the resistance.

“What,” Natasha’s strained voice came from behind, “the hell was that, Stark?”

“Good to know you guys always have my back,” he joked humorlessly, turning around to see Steve approach them as well, in civil clothes, but with shield ready and face hard. “Impeccable timing, like always.”

~*~*~

“Wait wait wait, come again – so Loki’s been bothering you regularly for a few months, and you’ve told us nothing?” Clint clarified, bewildered, rocking in his place on the back of the couch. Natasha flicked his knee, nearly breaking his balance, and he clicked his tongue at her. Steve frowned at them both.

“Well, that’s kinda too big of a stretch,” Tony muttered, holding the bottle for Hope who has been happily feeding in his arms, oblivious to the serious conversation going on around her. “It’s only been, like… three encounters in two months, I think?”

One of which he initiated himself, but they didn’t really have to know that, now did they?

The way Steve looked at him told him they weren’t quite buying it. Tony rolled his eyes and scowled at each of them in turn.

“We should have alerted Fury,” Steve said with a sigh. “Tony, it’s serious--”
 
“Look, I know, okay?” Tony interrupted, annoyed by their accusing stares. At least Bruce was looking more worried than angry, and Thor took to that part guilt, part thoughtful look he now got whenever they spoke of Loki. “But it’s not like he ever gave me the option to call for help – and it’s not like I needed it, anyway,” he added more softly when Hope frowned adorably, fussing slightly at the sound of his voice. “He just—appeared out of the blue and tried to feed me some, uh. Nonsense about Hope; he didn’t do anything--”

“But he could have,” Steve pointed out, just as Clint groaned.

“Hell, man, he could’ve been rummaging through your brains as you spoke, what the—heck,” he grunted when Natasha elbowed him in the stomach, glaring at the back of her head. “Don’t you know the guy? He’s like, nuts. It’s probably more concerning that he didn’t do anything – aren’t you supposed to be the genius here?”

“I agree with Clint,” Bruce poked in. “It seems very unlike Loki to stay so… uninvolved; are you sure--”

“Yes, for the tenth time, I am sure!” Tony dropped his head back, immediately righting it when Hope hiccupped and spat out the nipple, refusing to eat anymore. He set the bottle aside and helped her burp before taking a sated, content baby in his arms. She gurgled something, and he smiled at her.

A monster, huh.

At least this particular monster was on his side, coming from a funny little smile on a chubby face.

“My brother wouldn’t hurt Hope,” Thor said suddenly, still as thoughtful as ever. He shrugged when all eyes turned to him. “Say what you would, but he really is… all bark and no bite, as you say,” he chuckled. “I would not elaborate, for this is not my place to speak, but I would say he has nothing against her.”

“Just as I thought,” Tony muttered. “I mean, look at it this way; he had plenty of opportunities to do something, and yet instead of, you know, at least bothering Hope he chooses to bother me. When she’s nowhere in sight.”

“Doesn’t make me feel any better about it,” Clint muttered stubbornly. For once, Natasha hummed in agreement, and Bruce nodded reluctantly; Steve seemed to hesitate, glancing between Tony and Thor, and then sighed in defeat.

“I guess Tony is right – the last thing we need in such situation is provoking Loki,” he said, and added with a dry smile, “after all, it wouldn’t make an appealing public image if we attacked first.”

Tony would have fist pumped in the air if he didn’t have his arms full of a small baby; instead, he beamed at her and let her catch his finger, grabbing at it surprisingly tightly for an infant.

“You heard  that, princess? Uncle Steve admitted that daddy is right; we should mark this date in calendar, I swear!”

Perhaps the team wasn’t exactly glad with the decision to go with the flow, but at least this show seemed to ease the tension, if the chuckles and ‘aw’s it earned them were any indication.

Now, however, Tony was more curious than ever.

Having the team back him up if worse came to worst did wonders to his motivation to find out what was going on here.

~*~*~

Turned out he was right about Loki never turning up when Hope was around, and the rest of the team had to admit it as well. The most obvious notion that it wasn’t the baby but the Avengers that stopped him was proved wrong when he managed to convince them to simply watch from afar while he took Hope for a walk on his own for the first time.

The only ones who attacked them were paparazzi and several women dying to look into the crib.

So he took her out again. And again.

And again.

When Loki stubbornly failed to appear, let alone approach them, for two months, the rest of the team breathed in relief.

Tony, on the other hand, was getting antsy.

It was like an itch in the back of his head, a problem he couldn’t solve that left him in frenzy; Thor adamantly refused to talk about it, so the only hint Tony had on the whole matter was Loki being adopted, but it barely shed any light on the question.

And literally the only one who could do it was avoiding him – or rather, Hope, aka the question at hand – like plague.

He wanted to groan.

“You are getting restless,” Natasha stated, watching him wander around the living room while Steve played with Hope on the floor. “Stop it, you’re becoming an eyesore; go get some work done, or pester Bruce in the lab – we got it here.”

Tony snorted, pausing to look at her and think.

He knew he couldn’t get any work done in the state he was in at the moment; the only ‘project’ he’s been working on lately was looking for Loki, but it seemed to be fruitless. If he went to Bruce, he would end up talking about Hope again, effectively preventing the other scientist from working as well, which just wasn’t fair, so his options were scarce.

“Nah, I think I’d rather take her to walk,” he decided. Steve looked up at him and arched an eyebrow in silent question; he shrugged, somewhat offended that even after four months they would still doubt him. “What? It has a calming effect, okay?”

“Right,” Natasha snorted. He pouted and crossed his arms.

“Okay,” Steve agreed easily. “I can get her ready; you got the carriage?”

A baby carriage…

Tony hummed and rubbed at his chin.

“Nah,” he said slowly. “I think I’ll take the sling this time. There’s not nearly enough pictures of me in that contraction, after all, and she seems to like it better.”

If anyone found his sudden change of mind suspicious, they didn’t say anything. Or perhaps it didn’t sound all that suspicious; Hope did like it when he held her against his chest, after all, still mesmerized by the soft blue light of his reactor.

He wasn’t sure it would actually work.

Hell, he was ninety percent sure it wouldn’t work – no matter how small Hope was, it was hard to miss the sling around his form – but at least it was worth a shot.

It worked like a charm.

Half an hour after they left a tower, and there was a familiar voice calling for him from behind his shoulder.

“Surprised to finally see you alone,” Loki drawled. “I have to admit, I almost believed that you were—”

He trailed off, falling into stunned silence when Tony turned around with barely contained glee to see him casually – not so casually now, okay – sprawled on the bench.

“Hello to you too,” he cheered. “Would you believe it, I’m surprised to see you too. But not really, actually.”

Even from a few steps he could see Loki grit his teeth; for a moment, he thought the god would just disappear, but apparently he was more stubborn than that.

“I see,” Loki hissed, fluidly raising from the bench and approaching him slowly – cautiously, even. “Even after all that I’ve told you, you would bring her here? Risk me seeing her?”

Hope chose that moment to gurgle happily and poke her head from the folds of fabric; Loki’s eyes snapped to her and went almost comically wide.

He also seemed to forget what he’s been saying. Tony chuckled and shrugged one shoulder carefully.

“I don’t see why not,” he smiled and turned sideways so that Hope could see a new person. “See? A child,” he said softly. “Not a monster. Hope, say hello to Loki.”

This time, Loki’s eyes snapped to his face and stayed there for a long moment, his expression unreadable once again.

“You,” he uttered finally with a defeated sigh, “are impossible and quite possibly mad, Stark.”

Hope fussed around, curios about the new voice, and made grabby hands at Loki’s general direction; the god pulled away, but Tony rolled his eyes and grabbed his sleeve unceremonically.

“Come on, give her your hand, she’s curious,” he huffed. “Don’t be afraid; I promise she doesn’t bite – well, yet. She probably will soon, but right now she doesn’t.”

Loki looked at him completely unimpressed by his touch, but Hope chose that moment to grab his finger and squeal in delight—

And then promptly turn blue with another surprised sound and a soft, confused whimper, turning her red eyes up at Tony.

Loki froze in place, stock-still and so tense he seemed to stop breathing.

Well, crap. She did that sometimes, mostly when something surprised or scared her, but it wasn’t often, and he didn’t expect her to react like that to Loki; up until now, she’s been a pretty social little girl and rarely shied away like that.

Tony could feel the cold seep through the layers of fabric. So much for proving Loki wrong; if his reaction was anything to go by, he didn’t take too kindly to the transformation.

Right now, though, he was far more concerned by Hope’s small frown and trembling lip.

“Aw,” he cooed. “Look at my baby girl; you just wanted to boast, didn’t you, princess? Show him how beautiful you are; just like your daddy’s blue light, yeah?”

His soothing voice seemed to do the trick as she smiled again and slapped the center of his chest proudly, recognizing the words – or so he liked to think. He chuckled, holding her tightly against his form, and almost missed the sharp intake of breath.

The way Loki was looking at him—

He wasn’t sure he had words to describe it.

Shock, confusion, disbelief, something akin to awe and that same raw emotion he only got a hint of twice – fear?

And then his eyes fell to Loki’s still outstretched arm and the way dark blue color was slowly fading away from his wrist.

His eyes widened, and it was his turn to gasp in a sudden, rushing realization.

“You are--”

The very same hand, still slightly cool, closed around his neck as Loki suddenly brought his face close to his.

“I will destroy you, Stark,” he whispered, barely audible. “Don’t even think about it.”

He didn’t wait for Tony to confirm that he got the meaning behind his threat or to promise not to tell anyone – with the last panicked, crazy look he disappeared, leaving Tony clutching at his throat with one hand and coughing, and Hope whining softly from where he crushed her against his chest.

Well.

At least he got his missing puzzle piece.

~*~*~

Loki crashed hard into the end table, knocking it over along with everything he used to stash on it. A delicate glass bowl shattered upon hitting the floor, leaving a mess of various trinkets. The shards crunched under his feet once he righted himself, but he couldn’t care less, still too disoriented and dazed – and slightly from what had just happened.

He heaved, standing in the middle of his small apartment, and looked around wildly, searching for something that could ground him.

It was useless. He felt as if his world has just turned upside down.

The child – Stark’s daughter—

He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath.

He didn’t expect to feel this way. He didn’t expect – couldn’t believe Stark had been right all along, and even more so, now that he saw the baby, couldn’t believe he had been so wrong. In hindsight, he really should have known better; it all sounded so ridiculous now – so stupid.

She was no monster.

Simple like that.

She was just a tiny, helpless baby who didn’t know any better and had no idea of her horrid origins.

When she turned blue at his touch, shifted into her true colors upon recognizing him as a kin instinctually—

She looked so…

He’d say terrified, but that would be wrong, wouldn’t it? She was simply confused, because she didn’t know it was something to fear, wasn’t old enough to realize what the transformation meant.

And when Stark tensed against it—

Loki never would’ve thought he could feel such a sudden, harsh surge of protectiveness. The power of it was sickening, the blood rushing to his head as he keenly waited for Stark’s reaction.

Surely his words, his stupid, thoughtless words must have taken at least some root – he wasn’t blind, he saw hesitation in Stark’s eyes every time they met. And even if not for that–

Human babies were not supposed to turn blue, of that he was fairly sure.

He waited – he wasn’t even sure for what; for Stark’s excuses at best, for him blaming a small child that wasn’t responsible for her nature at worst – after all, wasn’t that exactly what he had done?

When in reality she was just like him. A baby stolen from its land, abandoned by parents for being too weak, adopted by others to be used as a weapon, as a trophy—

She could still become a monster, he realized. But not from her own volition.

She could still hear her own father tell her to stay normal. She could still grow up learning to hate her true form.

If Stark did any of that—

But he didn’t.

There was a tense, wary look he had sent Loki, and then his demeanor changed drastically once he turned his attention to the child in his arms.

His voice was soft and his smile was warm, and he didn’t look anything like Loki expected – there was no fear, no disgust, not even surprise, only clear affection.

When the baby smiled up at Stark, remaining blue, when he realized what Stark had just done – making sure his daughter was comfortable in that skin–

That was the moment his world shifted.

And then, of course, Stark noticed his own hand that turned blue from the contact.

The color was already fading from his skin, but it was enough – he could see something click in Stark’s eyes, and it was too much to take in at once.

Distressed, Loki dropped onto the couch, gripping his hands tightly in his hair.

His emotions were such a mess.

So Stark did know what he’s been talking about when he refused to believe the baby was a monster; it didn’t seem like he saw her as one, no matter which color her skin was.

Could it really be that simple?

Or was he still missing something?

What if she still was no more than a trophy – an exotic and pampered one, but meant only for the display anyway? A show of the Avengers’ benevolence and power?

Oh, it was driving him mad.

He groaned in dismay and slumped in defeat, blindly staring into the distance.

There was only one way to find out, wasn’t there?

~*~*~

While the team didn’t take the encounter with Loki lightly, they didn’t interfere, for which Tony was immensely grateful – even if it meant he had to listen about himself being so damn irresponsible for the next few days.

It was okay; he could deal with it, especially since he knew that most of it was born out of their reluctance to admit his rightness.

They didn’t like it when he had asked them not to act should Loki appear when he was on his own and simply stay put; the tension seemed to ease as Loki failed to make an appearance over and over again, and Tony was glad that when it finally happened, catching them all ofа guard, they still remembered his request.

And hey, turned out it wasn’t so unwarranted, was it?

He didn’t tell anyone what happened, though, leaving it at Hope turning blue and startling Loki.

Thor looked like he knew, though, and Tony had a weird feeling of a silent agreement having been made between them. He was itching to pepper Thor with questions, but there was no way of knowing for sure whether he knew about Loki being, well, blue, or not, and if he didn’t – well. It wasn’t his place to tell him.

He suspected Thor did, and had similar reasons for not sharing the information with either of them, but left it at that.

So… apparently Loki was a jötun as well. Or rather, a half-jötun, if Thor was to be believed about the purebloods living up to their name both in size and body temperature alike.

Boy, did it bring the whole situation in a completely different light. It almost hurt to think of the mess that must have been Loki’s feelings on the matter; the despair and insistence with which he continued to call a child he didn’t even know a monster – it was… kinda tragic, really.

But he guessed growing up in a society that absorbed collective hatred of jötnar with their mothers’ milk would do that to a guy.

Thor once told them, reluctantly so, that the truth about Loki’s adoption was a long time coming, and that he didn’t take to the news lightly at all, which essentially led to his epic fight with their father and descent to the way of evil. At the time it sounded overly dramatic and completely unnecessary, but now, thinking of it, Tony could see why Loki would react that way.

What must he have felt when he found out that he was one of those he was taught to hate? And being of the royal family as well – they had to have especially strong opinion on the matter, there was no staying neutral about it.

For his whole life, he considered them to be monsters – it was so deeply ingrained in his mind that he couldn’t even imagine that being untrue, that was clear from their clipped conversations.

To feel that amount of hatred directed at himself, all at once…  

Not that it excused Loki, of course, but Tony couldn’t even begin to wrap his mind around how fucked up that was.

He wished he could ponder the matter more, but the Avengers insisted on being around pretty much all the time now, pestering him about his suicidal and hurtful tendencies.

Because it hurt, and because they basically implied that he wasn’t, after all, suited to be a father, putting Hope into danger needlessly, whether they realized it or not, Tony chose to argue instead, because his other option was to break down, and he didn’t want them to know just how insecure about it all he still was.

So it went on something like that:

“I tell you, he’s not so bad,” Tony rolled his eyes for what felt like a thousandth time. “And no, I’m not making excuses or anything--”

“No, but your crush is showing,” Clint snorted, idly surfing through the TV channels on mute. Tony clicked his tongue, annoyed.

“I’m not--”

“Oh, you totally are,” Natasha teased with a smirk. Even Steve huffed with a small smile. At Tony’s affronted look he shrugged.

“I’m not saying that you are,” he offered diplomatically. “But whatever it is, you know it shouldn’t affect you; he’s still our enemy, Tony, whether we like it or not.”

“And whether he likes it nor,” Bruce added softly. Tony nodded with a sour look and slumped in his armchair, sliding down a little.

“I’m not saying he’s not,” he muttered stubbornly. “I’m just--”

Please don’t play the ‘misunderstood’ villain card now,” Natasha interrupted, shooting a glare at Thor who made to reply with a mighty frown. “We’ve already been over it; no matter what was his driving force, it doesn’t make him a good guy.”

“I’m not making him one!” Tony threw his arms up in dismay. “I’m only saying that it’s not exactly black and white, and it’s more complicated than that!”

For a moment, the room fell into an uncomfortable silence; it was Jarvis, surprisingly enough, who broke it.

“Sir, I believe you might want to come down to your workshop.”
 
Tony frowned, blinking in surprise. It was already pretty late in the evening, and he had no active projects, at least those that might demand his immediate attention, so the request was quite unexpected.

“What is it? Did Dummy and U break something again?” he inquired, already on his way to the lift.

I think it’s better if you see for yourself,” Jarvis replied politely, and Tony thought he could hear hesitation in his mechanical voice, which – weird.

He suddenly had a bad feeling about it. Once the lift door closed, Jarvis spoke again, this time, only for him to hear.

I am sorry if my request made you uncomfortable, sir; I promise it was not my intention at all, as there is no reason to be worried.”
 
Tony chuckled uneasily.

“Yeah, there’s no better way to make someone panic than to tell them not to,” he muttered. “Spill, J. What is it? Did they break my favorite mug or something?”

Jarvis didn’t have to reply as he already arrived to his floor, walking to the workshop cautiously and wondering if he should call for the suit despite his own words not two minutes ago.

His working space seemed to be intact, however, and Loki was waiting for him patiently in the middle of the room, both hands clasped behind his back as he looked around with polite indifference.

So much for their improved security, then. No wonder it left Jarvis so confused.

“Feel yourself at home, don’t be shy,” Tony called, walking closer. Loki shifted to look at him and tilted his head slightly. From here, Tony could see how tense he really was; well, that made two of them.

He leaned against one of his relatively clutter-free tables and crossed his arms across his chest.

“So what brings you here? Pardon me my straightforwardness, I’d offer you a drink first like a polite host should, but, uh, you kinda caught me unprepared here. Don’t have any good stuff here, either, so.”

Loki regarded him silently for a few long moments, but didn’t say anything; it made nothing to ease Tony’s nerves, nor did the fact that for once, Loki wasn’t wearing casual clothes. He wasn’t in his armor either, though, leaving only his leather pants and linen tunic, which was… a confusing compromise.

“Well,” Tony huffed when the silence dragged on. “I figured you were here to talk, maybe dropped by to say hello to Hope since you finally came to your senses and realized just what a cute princess she is, but I guess I figured--”

“Stark.”

Tony fell quiet again, watching Loki take a deep breath in the dimly lit room – he didn’t bother to turn the main lights on, and neither did Jarvis. He now had a feeling that it was intentional.

“It occurred to me,” Loki said slowly, as if the words came with difficulty to him, “that I was wrong when we spoke of… your daughter.”

Tony arched an eyebrow, but swallowed the first impulse to say something at Loki’s warning look.

Only it wasn’t as much warning as it was pleading.

So Tony listened.

“You were right; one is not born a monster, but can become one all too easily,” he said quietly.  “So what I’m here for is to ask you – do you truly have what it takes to prevent it?”

Tony was just about ready to groan – were they seriously going to start it all over again? – but Loki wasn’t finished. His face turned determined, and he unclasped his hands, grabbing the hem of his shirt.

“Are you prepared to see her grow into one and still tell her that it doesn’t matter?” he spoke more firmly now, and then—

And then he suddenly tugged off his shirt, and Tony felt his jaw drop.

“Whoa there, not that I mind, but I’m not really sure where this is all going, and isn’t it a little too--”

Loki sent him a half-hearted glare, and only then did he notice it.

Color spreading over his skin, indigo-blue swallowing the pale expanses in slow licks, lines rising in intricate patterns over his torso and arms – it was a mesmerizing process to watch, and Tony felt his breath hitch.

In comparison, Hope mostly popped from one form into another with little to know delay, other than that initial transformation; he wondered if it was a show of control on Loki’s part, or if it was his denial of his nature that made it so slow.

When it was over, Loki took a deep, shaky breath and opened his blood-red eyes to meet Tony’s stare.

Tony knew the temperature dropped when his own soft exhale steamed in the air, but he didn’t feel it.

“So what do you say?” Loki asked hoarsely with a sneer. “This is what she will look like; if not you, it would be the others calling her a monster then – would you be able to stand it?” he spread his arms, showing himself, and Tony traced the movement with keen eyes.

“What can I say,” he hummed, stepping back from the table and making a step closer. Loki tensed some more, but didn’t stop him, so he took it as the invitation to take a closer look. After all, this was what Loki wanted, wasn’t it?

He stopped one he was firmly invading Loki’s personal space, studying the rigged lines on his face closely, not minding the sharp intake of breath or the confused, fragile look Loki gave him.

“If she grows up looking anything like you, it would be fucking impossible to chase off the suitors,” he muttered with a teasing smile. “I mean, just imagine how many there would be with how gorgeous she would look.”

He felt Loki’s breath on his cheek; felt it hitch, and felt the ragged rush of it when he exhaled.

“Stark,” he pleaded in a voice that was barely a whisper; his eyebrows pinched, he looked pained, and Tony felt something churn in his chest.

“You are beautiful, Loki,” he said seriously, absently lifting a hand to touch; Loki caught his wrist, looking panicked for a moment, careful to hold him over the sleeve. Tony chuckled and wiggled his fingers. “Come on, I have a baby that turns blue, like, ten times a day; it won’t burn me, I promise.”

Disbelief was clear on Loki’s face, but he reluctantly let go, and Tony brushed his fingers against his cheek; reflexively, he squinted his eyes, wincing – and then opened them wide again, watching Tony almost in awe.

“See? Doesn’t hurt,” Tony mused, running his fingers up to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. “It’s cool, yeah, but not freezing, don’t flatter yourself, you’re not Elza.”

Loki laughed wetly and finally pulled back from the touch; Tony obediently let his arm drop down and smiled up at the disheveled god.

“You’re not a monster,” he said. “But I say we have that talk some other time, because I get a feeling that it’s gonna be long, and better had somewhere more comfortable.”

He searched Loki’s eyes, and though the god wrinkled his nose, looking dubious about the idea, he did nod slowly.

Which meant that he got what Tony really meant, and agreed that there would, in fact, be the other time.

Actually…

“You know what? I think it’s great you’re here,” he blurted out, taking a step back. “I mean, there’s this thing called cultural appropriation, and you’re literally the only one like Hope here, so if you, say, decided to stick around – it could be, you know. Great.”

Loki made a questioning noise, slightly muffled where he was tugging the shirt back on again, his skin slowly turning back to white.

“What would your Avengers say?” he laughed, way more easily now – like a weight has just been lifted from his shoulders.

In a way, Tony guessed, it was.

“Well, why don’t we ask them?” he dropped nonchalantly, and grinned when Loki chocked on his laughter.

~*~*~

Even though it’s been quite some time now, Tony still remembered the day Thor appeared in the tower with a child in tow like it was yesterday.

The stunned silence of the living room, only broken by baby’s cries, and everyone’s shocked expression.

In a way, it was that day again, all over.

Same silence, same shock, same disbelief, another half- jötun to take into the family.

“Are you serious right now?” Steve asked, frowning and looking back and forth between him and Loki, who remained uncharacteristically quiet, if no less prim, with his chin lifted high and eyes challenging, daring.

Tony was probably the only one who could guess the insecurity behind it.

“Yep,” he said cheerfully. “One hundred percent sure.”

Clint made a pained noise, obviously beyond any words; Natasha and Bruce shared the same look of bizarre disbelief, and Thor – well, Thor was beaming, but that was to be expected.

“Look,” Tony added hastily before anyone could say anything else. “I know what you’re thinking, I really do – I know this sounds like madness,” Loki snorted, surprising everyone in the room, and Tony rolled his eyes with a small smile of his own, “and I know what it must look like since we literally just spoke about it, but just – give it a thought. Loki is a valuable asset; we have him on our side, everyone wins.”

“I have a feeling that some parties might be winning more than others,” Natasha retorted coldly, crossing her arms across her chest and narrowing her eyes at Loki.

From the corner of his eye, Tony saw Loki wince, but surprisingly enough, it was Bruce who spoke on Loki’s behalf.

“It is a big decision,” he agreed. “But I don’t see why we can’t give it a try. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“Am I going mad, or is it just a nightmare?” Clint hissed, throwing his arms up and pining Loki down with an angry glare. “Or are you all fucking crazy? He’s a--”

“Bruce is right,” Steve interrupted him with a heavy sigh, obviously unhappy to admit it. He rubbed at his forehead, as if staving off the headache. “It looks like it wasn’t just a momentarily decision; Tony?”

Tony made his best to look innocent.

Steve grimaced once again, effectively telling him that he wasn’t buying it, and looked at Loki with all seriousness.

“Correct me if I am wrong, but you did consider this for some time now, didn’t you?” he asked evenly. Loki met his eyes calmly and nodded.

“Of course.”

“Wait, you did?” Tony startled, surprised; Natasha huffed, annoyed, and rolled her eyes. Clint groaned and left, stomping loudly.

Just like he did that day as well.

“We’ll have to run it over with Fury first,” Natasha said. “And at least try and make it look like you weren’t hiding Loki in your workshop all the while if we’re really doing it.”

“I knew you would eventually join us, brother,” Thor beamed, and just like that, it seemed that it was decided for.

It was one thing to say no to Loki, who they could probably handle should he be offended by their denial; it was completely other to say no to Thor, and not even Steve would probably risk it.

“I didn’t say I would join you, though,” Loki mused, and it was like everything coming to a screeching stop.

“Wait, what?”

Even Natasha, usually so stoic, gaped a little, and Loki smirked, obviously feeling slightly more in his element now that he managed to take the upper hand in this conversation, bringing confusion with one simple sentence.

Well, Tony might not have been happy about it, but at least he could understand him. With everything happening so fast, no wonder Loki wanted to take back some control.

“I say we call it a truce,” he explained, ignoring Thor’s puppy eyes of doom. “But I do believe it would be better for everyone if we leave such a major decision for a better time.”

For the first time, both Natasha and Steve looked at him with something akin to respect; Bruce just looked thoughtful, but Tony could see his silent approval all the same.

When no objections followed, Loki bowed formally and turned to leave; Tony caught up with him, glad that for once, he didn’t just disappear.

“At least say hi to Hope before you leave; or, well, goodnight, since she’s hopefully still sleeping,” he joked quietly, smiling with a corner of his mouth.

“Tony--” Steve called back warily, but Tony simply flipped him off behind his back.

“I have a feeling,” Loki chuckled when they got to the lift, “that it wasn’t for the sake of your daughter that you wanted me on this team.”

“So what if I didn’t?” Tony bit back with a suggestive smirk, his mood slightly improving again. Loki rolled his eyes.

“I’d say we save this talk for some other time as well,” Loki replied lightly. “As well as the visit to your daughter; I wouldn’t want to abuse your hospitality just when we settled our differences.”

Tony huffed, but refrained from saying anything else; the smile Loki sent him as he got on the lift was promising, and he smiled back as well.

He could do the other time.