Hela Lokisdottir is one of the most powerful mages in the Nine Realms.
Her ancestry is such that the fact does not come as surprise. Loki is near as powerful as herself, and Angrboða was capable with magic too while she still lived. But Hela is also a Queen of her own realm, and such responsibility brings a special sort of power with it, a power that can rival even Odin-King and his vaunted Asgardian seiðr.
And she is one of the incarnations of death, besides. Mistress Death does not suffer weaklings.
However, Hela may be powerful, but Odin has thousands of years on her and he is far more skilled for it.
She knows of only three beings that could rival him in ingenuity. Frigga would not help her in her endeavor, for she is forever loyal to her unworthy husband. Father would have, if he could, but Odin bound him just as surely as his children, and he cannot do a single thing to ease their suffering.
But Jǫrmungandr… Her brother wants his freedom as much as herself. Perhaps even more so, despite having a whole realm as his prison.
It's the principle of the thing, sister, he would say, his voice nearly a jest, but his mental presence flat and cold and dangerous. He is most like their father of the three of them, and that does not bode well for Asgard when they finally find a way to free themselves.
Fenrir, whose mental voice is faint as he does not have their skill and power with seiðr, listens and waits. His strength may be needed still, and shapeshifting ability is always useful, but he cannot contribute anything just yet.
Thus, Jǫrmungandr examines the bindings that keep them contained and studies them with intensity and determination that Hela cannot help but admire. It takes him years, despite his cleverness, for Odin-King does not receive admiration for nothing. He manages, however, because their grandfather may be powerful, but Jǫrmungandr is as cunning as Father, and loopholes require only wiliness to find.
So her brother tells her where to strike and where to tear, and Hela chants prayers – old ones that only the dead and their queen remember – words of power falling from her lips and unravelling bindings the All-Father is so proud of. The ties shatter, the magic splinters, and to her mind's eye it glitters like broken glass under bright sunlight. She does not go quiet then, either, despite exhaustion. Instead, she makes sure that no one can find them, that no one can even know they are gone. Not Odin. Not Heimdall. Not even Father, for their safety and his.
She nearly faints when she's done, fatigue making her eyes droop. But she is Hela Lokisdottir, and she has brothers to save, so she straightens her spine and lifts her chin, before striding through the shadows of her kingdom and walking the secret paths Loki once showed her.
She will save her brothers, she is determined. And then they will leave for Midgard, because Jǫrmungandr, with his mental voice full of dark spite, once expressed his desire to truly live there.
Odin-King wants me to be chained and bound here, Hela, he had said, and she had never before seen so much of Loki in him, vindictiveness shining bright. He wants it to be a prison. I shall make it into my kingdom.
Pepper Potts is a beautiful woman.
It's not just physical beauty, although she certainly has that too. It's the way she carries herself, like a queen before her subjects, pride clear in the tilt of her chin, power held in the stride of her heeled shoes. It shows in the way she similes politely, charmingly, and cuts you to the bone with her words. It's apparent in the skill she displays as she deals with stuck-up board members, rabid reporters and Tony Stark at his worst with equal ease.
She's a powerful woman, and beautiful for it.
Pepper Potts looks herself in the mirror every morning and has to fight the urge to avert her eyes as her pretty face and pale skin is replaced with ice-blue and blood-red, monstrous ridges and swirls highlighting every imperfection.
It's nothing to be ashamed of, Jǫrmungandr – Tony – would have said if he could see her, so Pepper does not look away.
Pepper Potts gazes into a mirror.
Hela Lokisdottir gazes back.
Jǫrmungandr once promised to build himself a kingdom on Midgard, to spite the All-Father and all his courtiers who denounced him as a mindless beast.
Tony Stark fulfilled that promise.
Nobody but Pepper and Rhodey sees it. The SI is an international business, selling not just weapons, but building infrastructure and luxuries all over the world. His political power is immense – nobody would dare to anger a man that makes the most advanced weapons on Earth as long as he's not unreasonable. He's popular with the media as well as with the public, and the science community worships him. And JARVIS… JARVIS is everywhere – he holds the world in his coils.
And Pepper is sure that the only piece of magic he used to build his empire was an insidious mind spell that convinced Howard Stark that Tony was his cousin and he really should include him in his will.
It's astounding, that he's as capable a ruler as Odin-King with none of the education the latter received.
Pepper sometimes almost wishes that they can reveal their presence without fear of being killed. It would have been a pleasure to see All-Father's face as he realizes that the grandchildren he despised for their monstrosity, succeeded as much as he has, and with far more support besides.
It would have been a moment to remember, if only it were possible.
During the centuries they spend on Midgard, Fenrir falls into a habit of joining the military as a soldier.
He's the strongest of them physically and the best with shapeshifting and disguises, but he seems to enjoy fighting in a way that neither Hela nor Jǫrmungandr do. It's not the killing, he explained once, but comradery between brothers-in-arms, the utter trust in someone you fight with, the adrenaline and battle-readiness making everything brighter, slower… magical.
Fenrir is a warrior that Hela and Jǫrmungandr aren't, and she finds it a bitter sort of realization that Thor would have liked him best of the three of them, if only he had ever thought to get to know them.
She tells it to them once, when she's Pepper, Jǫrmungandr is Tony and Fenrir is Rhodey, and they're all well on their way to being drunk. She's not even aware that she's speaking until it's out, and then she smiles, thin-lipped and harsh as the glass in Tony's hand shatters and Rhodey fingers a scar on his throat.
"Yeah, well," Rhodey says, severely. "I don't think I'd have liked him."
Pepper – Hela then, because those are Hela's memories – thinks of a sword in Fenrir's jaw, Jǫrmungandr alone and lonely in cold ocean, Loki beaten down and abused until he was only a shell of his bright and mischievous self. She would not have liked him either.
"You know," Tony says slowly, musingly, and his eyes are dark and his smile too wide. "The prophecies say that I will kill him one day." The prospect makes something harsh and satisfied glitter in his gaze.
"They also say he will kill you, bróðir," Pepper points out, warningly.
Tony's grin is poisonous. "I've always taken those tales as more of a guidelines than a rule, Hela. And you know what I do when someone tries to guide me."
Pepper knows. She has to deal with the media fallout. She used to deal with dead bodies, but times have changed.
"You better not die," she says regardless and includes Rhodey in her cold glare. "Or I'll be forced to consult with Mistress Death."
They blanch. That, perhaps, is the only threat they'll listen to.
"How did this happen?" Pepper asks, clutching her phone hard enough to hear something creak.
Rhodey's face is drawn and haggard on the screen, visible even through the poor reception he receives in the middle of Afghan desert. There are specks of yellow in his dark eyes that shouldn't be there, and Pepper knows that, right now, he finds it just as hard to stay in his human form as she does. "I don't know," he says, sounding tortured. "It's Tony. I don't know how they took him."
And that's the thing. It's Tony. It's Jǫrmungandr, and there are very, very few beings in the Nine Realms that could get a drop on him and actually keep him, now that he is fully grown and not a mere child. And none on Midgard, as far as Pepper knows, and she shudders at the thought that someone not of Earth has found them after centuries of hiding.
"He's not dead," she says, instead of answering. She can be sure of that, at least. Pepper – Hela – would have known if her brother had died.
Something loosens in the set of Rhodey's shoulders. "Yeah, okay. Good." His voice is filled with relief.
They're silent for a few, long moments, before Pepper allows herself to look into her brother's wild eyes. The worry in them almost sweeps her off her feet with intensity. "You find him. I'll hold the fort here."
A shadow of a smile flickers over Rhodey's lips. "Yeah, you do that. Make sure that no one messes with his things. He'd hate that. And… take care of JARVIS." It doesn't need to be said that Tony treats the AI like his child, and that makes him family to them too. "I'll find him. I will, Hela."
The resolute tone of his voice and the use of her real name make her smile. It's a small, grim thing, more of a stretch of lips than anything else, but it is more emotion than she's managed since she heard the news. "You will."
(He does. But not before Tony somehow blows up his own captors sky high. Without using magic.
So very much like their father, the part of her that is still Hela thinks.)
As soon as they're alone and out of sight and hearing of any recording devices and media, Pepper rounds up on Tony.
"Why did you do that?"
Tony's smile is a soft, confused thing as he looks bewilderedly at her distressed face. "What, the weapons? Pep, I had to–"
Rhodey slaps him on his shoulder hard enough to break human bones. Tony barely staggers. "Not the weapons, dumbass! Why did you allow humans to hold you?"
Tony's face smooths over in realization. "Oh."
"Oh?!" Pepper almost shrieks and has a momentarily urge to throttle him. She's sure it wouldn't kill him, but it would make her feel better. "Three months, Tony! Three months! We only knew that you weren't dead, but we had no idea if you were injured, or tortured, or on freaking Asgard, because you let humans keep you!"
"Pep…" Tony looks gutted as he listens to her. "I didn't let them keep me. I had no choice."
Rhodey looks at him worriedly. "Jǫrmungandr… Brother. I know of nothing and no one on Midgard that would make you helpless."
There's a bitter slant to Tony's lips as he smirks half-heartedly at them. Suddenly, he yanks the collar of his shirt down. "Yeah, well. I found something."
There's a blue, circular… device placed in his chest, jagged scars snaking around the metal and marring his torso. It glows soft blue against Tony's skin and Pepper reaches out to place her hand on it, something uneasy curling in her gut.
"What's that?" Rhodey asks, crowding closer to have a better look.
"It keeps me alive," Tony answers, a strange mix of pride and resentment in his voice. Pepper has never heard him sound so conflicted about one of his creations. "I got shrapnel lodged near my heart as a souvenir from the blast. This keeps it away."
Shrapnel in the heart… Even gods cannot recover from wounds to the heart. Pepper shudders and retracts her hands.
"Can you remove it?" she asks.
Tony shrugs. "If I had a good enough surgeon I could. But then I'd have to explain the super healing bit and that's…"
"A no," Pepper sighs, because it will take humans at least a couple of decades still to prefect that kind of technology.
Rhodey shifts then, catching their attention. "So you can't shift," he concludes. If Tony shifted right now, with that thing in his chest, who knows how his body would react. It's possible that nothing would happen. It's highly likely that his heart would get shredded by the shrapnel. "But why not use seiðr?"
The mockery of a smile on Tony's face stretches. "Yeah… about that." He turns to Pepper and raises an eyebrow. "Try using seiðr on me."
Pepper looks at him in confusion but tugs at the strings of power. Nothing happens. "It's blocking me," Pepper gasps out incredulously, and resists the urge to back down a few steps. It feels unnatural, cold and lifeless.
Rhodey gapes at her words and she can feel him clumsily flinging his own power in Tony's direction. His face goes slack as the magic dissipates without touching the inventor.
Tony scratches the back of his head. "I'll need that book of yours about runes, Pepper. We'll have to do something about this."
Pepper has never much cared for Obadiah Stane. They inherited him form Howard together with the company and they allow him to stay only because he is competent enough at the business side of things to leave Tony alone in his workshop.
And then it turns out that Obadiah Stane tried to have her brother killed.
Pepper presses that button and doesn't feel even a hint of regret.
In this, she knows, she is her father's daughter just as much as Jǫrmungandr is his son.
Tony loves Iron Man with all his heart.
Pepper did not expect it. She has never thought that Tony is fond of flying, but she is not surprised now that she thinks about it. In retrospect, it's actually pretty clear.
Tony loves freedom, not flying, and Iron Man is the freest he has ever been.
Pepper will never begrudge him that, even if it would have been more practical to use magic against any further treats, and not technology, no matter how advanced.
At least Rhodey has some sense left still. He is in the military, yes, but he is using his superior strength and what little seiðr he has to keep himself safe.
(Rhodey steals a flying suit of armor and starts calling himself War Machine.
Sometimes, Pepper forgets that being their brother means that Rhodey is Loki's son too.
And then he goes and does something so monumentally stupid that only Tony and Loki can compete, and Pepper is reminded once again.)
"What's this about you dying?" Pepper asks when the mess with the Expo is finally over and all loose ends taken care of.
Tony, lounging on the sofa, half-asleep, flipps his hand listlessly. "SHIELD thought I was going to kick the bucket because of palladium poisoning. 'Cause of this," he says, tapping his chest, which lets out a metallic sound.
"And were you?" asks Rhodey with a hint of a growl in his words. He's just as tired and battered as Tony and Pepper, but he seems to be coping with it better. Military training will do that to you, Pepper supposes.
"Nah. It itched like hell – sorry, Hela – and I had a fever, but nothing really serious," Tony answers, and Pepper exhales in relief. "But a human would have been dying, so I had to act like I'm useless and let them push me around. At least I got a new element out of it."
Pepper mulls it over for a few seconds. "Why did they help you?" Because shady government organizations generally don't bother offering their help to individuals, no matter how rich they are.
"I think," Tony says musingly, "that they're trying to recruit me for Avengers."
"The Secret Superhero Club you told us about?" Rhodey snorts. "And they're asking you?"
Tony places a hand on his chest. "I'm offended, platypus. I am a hero these days, you know. The internet says so."
"Well, if the internet says so..."
"Are you going to agree?" Pepper asks, bringing the conversation back on track. She'll let them bicker later to get it out of their systems.
"I don't know, Pep," Tony shrugs leisurely. "If they're interesting enough, sure, why not?"
Loki comes to Midgard.
SHIELD, apparently, becomes interesting enough.
As soon as JARVIS sends her the location, Pepper teleports both herself and Rhodey to the penthouse of the Stark Tower.
Tony is already there, looking bedraggled and disheveled, but physically unhurt, and Pepper's shoulders drop in relief. She knew he wasn't dead, but that does not mean uninjured, and if Asgardians are somehow coming out of woodwork, it's even less of a certainty.
Loki is there too and the fact almost makes her weep.
Their father looks terrible, despite the impeccable armor he wears and the careful way he styles his hair. His face is drawn and pale and his eyes, usually glittering with mischief and intelligence, are lifeless and dull. His movements are rash, explosive, and he's gripping a scepter with a foul stone like a lifeline.
Last few centuries have, apparently, not been kind to Loki Odinson.
Pepper's heart clenches.
"Loki Silvertongue," she announces her presence, calling him by his favored name.
Loki turns on his heel, as quick as a striking snake, and frowns when he sees her. There's some madness in his gaze, and hesitation too, because, somehow, on some level, he recognizes her, she is certain. "Who are you?"
Pepper allows her glamour to drop.
Loki takes a hasty step back, ungraceful in a way he is only when surprised. His eyes are wide and stunned and his mouth drops open. "Hela?" he asks, tone filled with disbelief and so much hope that something in Pepper breaks to see it.
Rhodey shifts and draws Loki's attention to himself. His human-brown eyes have bled into yellow-gold, teeth suddenly too big for humanoid mouth as he smiles his wolf-smile. "Fenrir," Loki breathes out, and his hand twitches as if he were about to reach out to them.
He catches himself, however, and whirls on his heel to stare at Tony piercingly, a spark of life appearing in his gaze. "Jǫrmungandr?" he asks, and the raw want in his tone is crystal clear.
"Father," Tony confirms, and smiles a fanged grin, his lips glistening with poison as his pupils become slits.
Loki crumbles before their eyes. The scepter falls to the ground with a clatter as his hands go slack. "Odin took you. I tried to stop him, but he… He took you."
Pepper is certain that Loki Silvertongue, the greatest liar and the most magnificent bastard in Nine Realms – with the exception of Tony Stark, of course – would have wept then and there if not for Thor barging in through the window and demanding, "Loki! What is this newest trickery?!"
It's a matter of seconds to close the portal without any casualties. It's a matter of hours to convince the Avengers not to kill them all.
Fury wants them transferred to SHIELD facility. Tony adamantly refuses to move from behind the counter, no matter how much they threaten, and Rhodey and Pepper back him up without hesitation. Loki, still stunned and silent, merely retreats to stand between them and the rest of the Avengers, who are all gathered at the other end of the penthouse, staring at them in disbelief. Banner is the only one who does not wish to present unified front as he hovers at the edge of the confrontation, glancing uncertainly from Tony, to Loki, and then to a seething Fury.
"Are you telling me," the director starts, and looks like he's torn between shooting them to get rid of the problem, or shooting himself so that he wouldn't have to deal with it, "that you three are Loki's children and that you've been playing at being humans for the last few centuries?"
"Since just before the Black Death, I'm pretty sure," Rhodey adds just to see the muscle above Fury's eye twitch.
Rogers scowls in disappointed. "You lied to SHIELD? To us?" He looks like he's personally offended.
Tony hisses and most of them, Thor among them, flinch at the animalistic sound. There's a hint of a forked tongue as her brother answers, "We lied to everyone, Capsicle. Don't be such a self-righteous ass about it."
Thor shifts in place, his hands tightening around the hammer. "You truly are monstrous, both within and without," he says, strong and judging. "Liars and cravens, All-Father named you, and I see now that he had the right of it."
Green fire erupts around Loki's clenched fists, misty and ethereal, but he seems angry enough not to notice. "Your father is the monster here," he says, his tone flat and cold. "He took innocent children from their parents and imprisoned them."
"They are beasts!"
Rhodey's deep growl reverberates through the room as he takes a furious step forward, eyes gleaming, but he's frozen in his place as Loki beats him to the punch.
"They were children!" Loki roars. "Barely a century old! And you took them. You tortured them! You put a sword through Fenrir's jaw!" His breathing is hard and laborious, but he seems to delight in uncertain looks the rest of the Avengers are now shooting at the god. Banner is even slowly inching towards their group, breathing very carefully, and very calmly. "And you call them monsters?"
Thor looks stricken. "It was for our safety, brother. The prophecies…"
A sharp gesture of a pale hand stops him mid-sentence. "Do not speak to me of prophecies, Thor Odinson, for we all know what they foretell about my fate. And yet, no one thought to imprison me, because I do not look like a beast. Only my children." There is a bitter twist to his lips as he speaks that, and Pepper is certain that this is a new conclusion. "And do not call me brother either. You have lost all rights to that title."
There are a few moments of drawn-out, pregnant silence.
"As fascinating as this is," Barton drawls, as dry as a desert, "can we maybe talk about the fact that Stark's an alien?"
Tony's grin is a sharp-toothed thing as he aims an appreciative glance in the archer's direction. "You don't seem too surprised, Legolas. Already knew I'm too good to be from this world?"
Rogers shuffles, his expression shifting to something close to disgust, but Barton smirks. "I read your file, Stark. I know that you're too weird."
Tony chortles, but his eyes are still sharp and wary, his lips stained with poison. He looks at Barton like he wants to eat him for dinner, and Pepper can only guess that it has something to do with all the dark glares the agent has been shooting at their father.
"Jǫrmungandr," Pepper says in warning and every eye in the room is suddenly on her. She sees the way they look at her, notices how they try not to shudder at the grotesque sight of blue skin stretched over a laughing skull. She resists the urge to smirk, because Tony was right; her ugliness can be used for her advantage.
Tony backs off. Pepper smiles at the assembled heroes with a smile that gets only wider as Thor and Rogers recoil. "Director Fury," she says in a voice so sweet that Tony and Rhodey cringe preemptively. "Why exactly do you want to arrest us?"
"False identities," he shoots out, straight-faced.
"Well, then. I look forward to sharing a cell with Miss Natalie Rushman. And Mr. Donald Blake. And we can't forget Mr. Steve Rogers from New Jersey." Both Thor and Rogers wince while Romanoff's face doesn't even twitch.
Fury grits his teeth. "Miss Potts…"
"Queen Hela," she corrects him, with a smile that looks more fitting on Fenrir's face than hers. "And let me make something very clear, Fury. If you try to take either me or my brothers I will retract all the funding SI is currently so generously giving to SHIELD and sue you into bankruptcy." There is a vein on the director's forehead that looks like it's about to burst. "And if you even come close to my father ever again, you will see how a true alien invasion looks like, and this time there will be no killing your enemies." Her realm would gladly raise weapons at her mere word. Most of them have no love lost for Asgard.
Rhodey whistles. Tony says, "Damn, Pepper," under his breath and grins at her. And Loki… Loki is looking at her with equal mixture of amazement and pride, and Pepper – Hela – can't remember ever feeling loved so much, with her whole family at her side.
Fury really stands no chance.
Hela doesn't want to be left alone in an unfamiliar place, but Grandfather says she must.
" You will rule the whole realm, girl," he had said before she left, but she is smart enough to see the hidden disgust in his eyes. His voice had been cold. "And you will keep it loyal to Asgard."
Grandmother seemed proud when her coronation was announced. Uncle Thor looked like he dearly wanted to throw a tantrum. Father wasn't there.
But he is here now, as they are readying for the journey, and all Hela wants is to cling at his tunic and never let go. She wants Fenrir. She wants Jǫrmungandr. She does not want to be alone.
"I cannot help you, love," Father says, under his breath so as not to be overheard. "Odin-King made sure of that." Hela can see – feel – the magic that binds him to his word. Grandfather must have made him swear and not even the greatest liar in all the Nine Realms can break a magic-bound promise.
"You will have to free yourself," he continues, and Hela listens very carefully. "And when you do, take your brothers and run."
Hela can feel her brothers now, their mental voices faint and flickering. Jǫrmungandr is so terribly lonely in that cold sea, and so terribly angry that Hela's heart goes out for him. Fenrir is… just in pain, and Hela cannot get anything else from him.
" What about you?" she asks.
Father smiles at her, the thin slash of his lips looking almost painful. His green eyes are glittering. "Don't worry about me, Hela. Never worry about me."
Hela nods, but silently vows to herself that she will help her father if she ever gets a chance.
She's sure that her brothers will agree. They always do.