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The Damage Done

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I never climbed Everest, Tony thought, because of course, when you're that close to buying the proverbial farm, you almost owe yourself the luxury of making a bucket list, then feeling shitty about all the fabulous stuff you'll never, ever get the chance to do.

Shoulda climbed Everest. Bruce has been to Nepal, and maybe...

Only Tony knew that Bruce couldn't really help. Not with travel plans to Nepal, or anything else.

Besides, if he told the truth, the closest he really wanted to get to mountain climbing was that weird--but actually pretty damn interesting--book he'd read, all about climbing Everest, which frankly sounded horrible, what with all the cold (he hated to be cold) and the camping (Tony didn't actually know if he hated camping, because he'd never been crazy enough to go camping). Camping in extreme cold while also trying your damnedest not to fall off a fucking huge, possibly Yeti-infested mountain (not that Tony was really a cryptozoology kind of guy, but the fact remained that he literally had seen stranger things) with ridges, crevasses, and way, way too much snow, and yet not enough oxygen...

Blarg.

The book... 

Pepper hated the weird shit he read.

The book, the one he was trying to think of, had Yetis in it. And Nazis. Mountain-climbing Nazis, possibly the worst kind. Only, the Nazis were really Yetis, or the Yetis were really Nazis. One of the two. He couldn't remember. It all made sense at the time.

He also couldn't go to Nepal with Bruce (even if, through some preposterous twist of fate, he ever got to see his ScienceBro again), because Bruce would make him call the mountain Sagarmatha, or possibly Chomolungma, while earnestly try not to laugh at his pronunciations. After that ordeal, Bruce would make him eat yak yogurt. Tony knew it.

Pepper often made him eat almond yogurt. Or pretend to eat almond yogurt. Not yogurt flavored like almonds, which would be at least halfway on the way to okay, but yogurt actually made of almond milk. Pepper refused to listen to his diatribe on why she couldn't really call it milk, because milk came from mammals, while the liquid extracted from plants was generally called juice. Pep answered that she refused to refer to her almond--or cashew, hazelnut, pistachio, pecan, or walnut--beverages as "nut juice," and that he was being ridiculous (and more than a little gross). "What?" Tony had responded, with one of his innocent looks. Pepper had been both unmoved and unimpressed.

Come to think of it, Pep often seemed both unmoved and unimpressed with the stuff he said. But he loved her. He loved her. He did.

Could a guy really base a marriage on the eating (or not eating) of nut-based yogurt? Not that it would really be the foundation of their union, but a man who'll lie about yogurt...

Maybe a man who'd lie about yogurt would lie about anything. Or maybe there were enough levels of lies that some were okay, some iffy, some unforgivable, like venial sins and... um... that other kind of sin.

He should ask Grandpa Steve. Steve would know.

Tony found himself rubbing his chest, really working the ol' lungs trying pull in something approaching a halfway decent breath. He felt like a blue whale sucking in the equivalent of a backyard swimming pool's worth of seawater to strain out a few kilos of krill. Fuck, the O2 on this rust bucket must've dropped low. Lower than he'd calculated. Time to pull out the slide rule and recalculate those calculations, Stark!

Tony's mind felt weird now, too. Weird and slippery, like some other weird and slippery thing--like mayonnaise, or motor oil, or those snail-slime beauty mask thingies from Korea that Pep sometimes used on her face. He kinda felt like he didn't give two shits, now, about the calculations. Those calculations could fuck their complicated selves.

Besides, he didn't have a slide rule. Or a calculator. Or a computer. Or JARVIS.

His dad would have had a slide rule. Howard. Howard-his-dad had used a slide rule all the time, only he called it a "slipstick." Tony remembered.

His brain did its own kind of slippage then, to Sokovia, and then to the fact that Steve loved Bucky, like their friendship--his and Steve-o's--and the stuff they'd gone through, had meant nothing. And James "Bucky" Barnes had killed his dad. Because reasons. And James "Bucky" Barnes had killed his mom. Probably for no reason at all.

He saw his mom then, and heard her, only from far, far away, and small, like the people who showed up on the funny old fishbowl TV in Edwin Jarvis's quarters, so long ago now, back when Tony was really young. His mom wore her hair carefully styled, the way rich ladies did wear their hair in the early 70's. She had what was then called a "trim figure," and donned her designer suits like armor, made to keep everything out and everything in. Tiny and distant, she sang along to one of her vinyl records, played on a hi-fi the size of a modern refrigerator. The voice on the record, low, sweet and full of feeling, belonged to Karen Carpenter, who died from not enough food. Maria, his mom, could match her note for note.

Tony, Maria's eyes seemed to say, Tony, be careful! Be careful!

Or maybe that was just the way she'd always looked, timid and cautious, like a doe in the woods. She never sang in public, or even in front of anyone who wasn't Tony. She didn't like to attract attention, or make waves.

Be careful! Maria cried out again, just as small, just as distant.

I'm afraid that ship has sailed, Mom, Tony answered. He wasn't going to die from not enough food, like poor Karen C., or even from the lack of water. The truth was, maybe in an hour, maybe in minutes, he was going to check out purely from not enough air, and nothing now could stop that. Nothing could save him.

He wondered what had happened to Nebula, aka Scraps, The Patchwork Girl of Oz? Where had she gone to? Had she huddled up alone in her own little part of the ship, to stumble through her very own disjointed thoughts?

Tony hugged himself tightly, as if somehow compressing his chest, making it smaller, could make up for the lack of anything to fill it with. He and Scraps had worked like hell to get the life support systems up and running, resulting in the thermostat set too high and, still, nothing to breathe. Apparently you didn't just zoom off into space with a shit-ton of oxygen bottles, you kinda made your own as time went by, which meant something along the lines of a re-breather system. If the ship hadn't gotten so monumentally fucked up, what with one thing and another, this one would be humming merrily on its way (or, as was currently the case, sitting stone-dead in the middle of nowhere) with perfectly breathable levels of oxygen.

Clearly, that hadn't happened. Not now, not then. Instead they'd wasted time and air. Words were spoken,  namely, "You're supposed to be some kind of advanced alien!" versus "Well, you called yourself a genius engineer!"

All for nothing.

The whole thing felt too hard, like way too much effort. Tony hadn't been so oxygen-starved since...

The sensation of being choked returned to him--another memory, this time too close instead of too distant. Fingers, irresistibly powerful and hard, bit into his neck, his toes brushed the floor once, then lifted, all contact lost. His windpipe compressed and he could actually hear the hard little nut of his larynx creak, no more than a second or two from cracking...

Only the pressure stopped, just like that, air rushing down his bruised throat and into his needy lungs. At the same time, though, Tony flew, glass shattering, then falling, all around him. Bright shards, sharp shards, and the ground rushing up to meet him as he fell, and only instinct and muscle-memory making him reach for the buttons that would conjure up his suit...

Tony's body jerked, maybe remembering that fall, or maybe, just maybe...

Had he been ready to drift off once and for all, ready to sleep, to "go gentle into that good night," and all that poetic shit, only something, against all odds, woke him up?

There'd been a sound, he suddenly knew. A sound like when you tap one of the pieces of the good silver against one of the pieces of the good crystal.

Ping!

He heard it again, louder--PING!--just before a sudden wind, a tearing and terrible wind, roared through his Chamber of Ultimate Despair, clawing at Tony's clothes, at his face, making his eyes squeeze shut.

The only thought left in his head, as he clung with pointless desperation to the nearest stable thing he could wrap his fingers around was, Explosive decompression! Fuck! Watch my eyeballs explode, just like in Total Recall.

Which was stupid. Maybe he should be grateful, even--eyeballs aside--to get a fast instead of a slow death. Except...

One enormous pulse of green light, dazzling even through Tony's clenched-shut eyelids, blasted away the dark. Something heavyish, and fairly large, flew by him, hitting the far bulkhead, not with a timid Ping! but with an ear-splitting CLANG!

That's it, that's it, Tony thought, feeling a strange and entirely inappropriate impulse to laugh. That was the viewport. Exploding eyeballs, here I come!

Only it wasn't. It didn't. They didn't.

Something entirely unexpected happened instead.

Chapter Text

"Monster!"

Nebula didn't exactly growl the word. Not exactly, though her voice had gone low and menacing--to a whole new level of low and menacing, that was, and this from one of the angriest, and definitely the most tightly-wound individual Tony had ever met. If Nebula had been exposed to gamma-rays somewhere along the line, she would have been Hulked out 24/7.

A weird little shudder climbed up Tony's spine, a sense both that something had happened (which, sure, the CLANG! and subsequent green flash pretty much locked that one down), but also about to happen.

Nebula moved further into his space, everything about her tense, but also somehow protective, which Tony found touching. She had both hands gripped around the handle of the biggest wrench he'd seen in his entire life.

What would a wrench like that even be used for on a spaceship anyway? Tony had to ask himself. He finally managed to blink the last of the strobing color-spots, a lingering after-effect of that eye-searing burst of green brilliance, out of his sight.

He'd suffered a surge of terror when his companion spat out that threatening "Monster!" half afraid she meant that Daddy Dearest had returned for a repeat performance, this time to finish them off completely. In retrospect, he guessed that kind of return engagement would be pointless--and whatever else Thanos might be, he didn't strike Tony as a pointless kind of guy--especially considering their current position of floating around parts unknown in a dead ship, without food, water, or oxygen (in reverse order of importance) and were, at this point, pretty much the toastiest toast that ever toasted.

Only...

Tony took a trial breath, then a deeper one, amazed to discover that his lungs had stopped trying to pump air like the bellows of a medieval blacksmith charged with forging armor for the entire Round Table.

"You did it!" he found himself crowing, ignoring the crack in his voice. "Fuck, Scraps, you actually did it!"

"I didn't," she snapped back, still holding that cartoonishly large wrench like she meant to swing for the back fences at Yankee Stadium.

Tony demonstrated with a couple more big breaths--and, okay, maybe his tongue felt like sandpaper, and his throat as if it had been recently lined with small shards of glass, but he could deal. "Oxygen. Breathing is good."

"I didn't fix it, Stark," she snarled. Honestly, he didn't know where she found the energy. Clearly, the sudden presence of air,  where there'd been none, along with the freaky-deaky events of a couple minutes before, had scared the crap out of her, and a Scraps scared was a Scraps who cranked things up to whole new levels of pissed-offness.

Tony didn't want to take the time to argue. Nebula's furious black eyes had laser-focused on something, and now that his vision decided to clear, it might not be the worst-ever idea to check out what prompted, first, her sudden "Monster!"-yelling and, now, her hostile attention.

The second part of that equation wasn't hard to figure out: they had a visitor. As to who the guy might be, and where he'd come from, green flashy-light aside, Tony hadn't a clue. His initial impression, though--discounting the stranger's totally unexpected appearance--was that Scraps might just be overreacting.

For one thing, out of the three of them, their drop-in visitor, oddly enough, seemed the most surprised by whatever turn of events had delivered him into their company. For another, impressive height and blood-red eyes aside, the guy didn't really seem to be much of a threat. In fact, the most accurate words to describe his expression would probably be "lost" and "shocked," maybe with a side order of "punch-drunk."

Whatever other qualities their visitor might possess, he clearly had one hell of a hard skull. The section of bulkhead currently next to his shoulder displayed a dent the size of a manhole cover. That kind of impact should have split his cranium like a pumpkin, if not shattered it outright--yet there he stood.

Temporarily, at least. After a few seconds of being upright--if confused--the man's (and, okay, "man," at least in Earth terms, was probably a stretch, but the stranger did appear to be male, at least, anatomy-wise) knees folded. He slid down the now-semi-buckled wall, ending up (with a little bit of a bump when he didn't quite manage the last foot or so of sliding), flat on his ass on the floor. At this point he reached up and plucked off a piece of his left horn, that had been dangling by a thread.

Yup, their visitor had horns, and rather (if this wasn't too strange a thought) attractive ones at that, shiny black, gracefully spiraled and shaped something like a ram's, only about a hundred times more more elegant and proportional--he wasn't Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, after all. Actually, severed horn aside, he had kind of a "handsome devil" thing going on.

He also appeared to be wearing nothing but the fanciest fucking underwear Tony had ever seen. It had gold embroidery. Need more be said?

The stranger sat there, knees up and forearms propped on top of them, just staring at the horn-chunk cupped in his palm, then at his own blue, black-clawed hands, back and front, with a look that could only be interpreted as complete and utter disbelief. Wherever he'd come from, he damn well hadn't expected to arrive looking the way he did.

After a few seconds, he glanced up, took in Nebula still brandishing the Wrench of Doom, and blinked once. Maybe he didn't want to stare, or didn't quite accept what he was seeing. His gaze flicked over to Tony instead.

Tony smiled back encouragingly.

In response, the guy did a major recoil, like a vampire in an old black-and-white horror movie who'd suddenly had a crucifix shoved in its face.

"Does he know you?" Nebula asked, her tone seeming to suggest that no other possible reaction to meeting Tony could exist anywhere in the universe.

"Hell, no," Tony answered. "Kinda think I'd remember."

His throat seized up then, and he found himself coughing up not only a lung, but possibly other organs. The imaginary glass-shards in his throat no longer felt quite so imaginary. In fact, they seemed huge, and sharper than ever, though Tony guessed the sensation mostly stemmed from all the recent talking having made his already desert-dry throat that much drier. His just-ended oxygen deprivation probably didn't help.

The stranger, having recovered from his giant recoil, proceeded to stare intently at Tony instead, his impeccably-groomed black eyebrows drawn together.

Had Tony possessed even a morsel of spare energy, all that focused attention would probably have made him start to peacock. Or possibly squirm. He hadn't quite decided which.

After a full, solid minute of this unabashed staring, their visitor appeared to make up his mind about something--though what that something might be, Tony couldn't begin to guess. The guy's lips, a slightly darker blue than the rest of him, parted.

He made a sound like a squirrel with laryngitis being strangled.

"Um..." Tony said. However uninvited their guest might be, he didn't want to offend the guy by blurting out anything tactless, especially anything along the lines of, "Hell of a language you've got there, buddy."

The stranger frowned, then geared up to give it another go. Nothing but the same tortured squirrel sound emerged. The guy's hand flew to his throat. A slim, elegant hand, with notably long fingers.

Weirdly, Tony thought he knew that hand (ignoring, for a moment, its lethal-looking black claws). He definitely recognized the word he'd read on their visitor's lips. He should--that word had been his own last name.

"Stark," this blue total stranger had said.

Which begged the question, how in hell did the guy know him? Tony may have had an ego as big as the great outdoors, but even he couldn't believe his reputation had proceeded him all the way to outer space.

Tony stared back in turn, searching his memory for anything familiar, anything that might solve what seemed like an unsolvable mystery.

A definite change of demeanor came over their visitor. His spine stiffened, and when the rest of his body seemed to be shouting at full volume, Don't look at me! Don't look at me! that backbone answered, Look if you're going to look. I'll tough it out. I'm damned if I'll ever show weakness in front of you.

So, then, question number two: what prompted that reaction?

Tony kept staring, then stared some more, barely noticing when Nebula glanced first to one of them, then to the other.

In the end, strangely enough, it was the cheekbones that clued Tony in. You could cut diamonds with those cheekbones.

"Oh, holy fuck," he breathed. "It's the god of mischief."

Loki glared at him in return.

Chapter Text


Tony glared back at Loki--at least up to the point where the glaring started to seem silly and a feeling crept over him, ridiculously, like he wanted to laugh, or even giggle, which more or less defeated the whole purpose.

He felt slightly better when he noticed that the corners of Loki's mouth had started to twitch too, as if he was rapidly coming closer and closer to catching Tony's incipient giggle-fit, but attempting to hold it off by glaring even harder.

Well, his old enemy did have the advantage, what with the blood-red eyes and all.

"Hey, what gives, Lok?" Tony rasped, suffered a brief coughing fit, and tried again. "Cat got your tongue? Plus, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you supposed to be, like, dead? Plus plus, any reason why you're blue?"

He watched about fourteen interesting expressions pass across the Asgardian's face, with the final result ending up somewhere between offense and confusion. At which point another chunk of that troublesome left horn spontaneously dropped off, clattering across the metal floor to land right by Tony's foot.

"Oops," Tony said.

Loki, never one to be predictable, shot horn-chunk number two a look of utter disgust, then reached up and snapped off the right horn at more or less the same point.

"Jesus, Loki!" Tony found himself recoiling, much as Loki had recoiled at the start of their reunion, the back of his head smacking the giant viewport. It hurt, but he hardly noticed. "What the actual fuck was that?"

He toyed briefly with the thought of starting to call the god of random behavior "Hellboy" from here on out, since neither "Rudolf" or "Reindeer Games" really seemed appropriate given the notable lack of antlers on display by this both helmetless and recently-dehorned Loki.

As a total non-answer, the Asgardian produced a square of what looked an awful lot like parchment from absolutely nowhere. For the following fifteen seconds, a little greeny-goldy flamelet scuttled across said parchment's surface, and then the page wafted in Tony's direction, landing directly in his hands.

"Cute," Tony said. If Loki had expected his magically-produced hate letter to do any good, he'd find himself sorely disappointed.

"Oo-kay, then." Tony held up the sheet of parchment for the god of hitting-your-head-really-really-hard-on-a-solid-metal-strut to view. He'd recognized several of the non-letters from their previous appearance as decorative motifs on the surface of the thunder god's big, worthy hammer, but hadn't an idea in hell what they meant. "Sorry, Bro of Thor, but I don't speak Rune."

He wasn't sure what he expected--for Loki to glare again, or do his signature Loki eye-roll, or maybe snark that runes comprised a written and not a spoken language, and how do you not know this, ignorant mortal?

Instead the Asgardian blinked a couple times, in a way that said he didn't believe what he was seeing, and if he did see it, then that act of seeing would be the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel's back, and that, right now, Loki had pretty much reached the absolute limit of what he was willing or able to take.

As proof of this, the god of having HAD ENOUGH, dropped his head down onto his knees, pushing all ten ridiculously long blue fingers deep into his Rock of Ages hair and looking for all the world like he was trying his level best to keep his skull from exploding.

Anyone else, and Tony almost certainly would have spared at least a, "Dude, are you okay?"

This, however, being Loki, Tony felt fairly certain he had not a single thoughtful, caring, or even mildly polite word to share.

Only, then, he found he actually did. Kinda-sorta.

"C'mon, Scraps," Tony said. "If he was gonna attack, pretty sure he'd have already done it. Maybe put down Wrenchasaurus Rex for a couple minutes?"

Never let it be said that Nebula was completely stubborn. She did lower her improvised weapon slightly, to the point that it looked like she was waiting for a serve in a game of wrench-tennis.

"Thanks for that," Tony told her.

To show what she thought of his thanks, and him in general, Nebula whirled away, marching toward the chamber-opening with a general air about her of being late for an appointment to slaughter her enemies in a more-than-usually-bloody way.

As it went, though, instead of stomping her way out of there with her usual determination, Scraps hit some kind of totally invisible barrier, one that appeared to have certain rubbery properties, because the minute she made contact, it tossed her back with a definite SPROING! sound, bouncing her into the center of the room.

She skidded a few feet more before jumping to her feet, her several-shades-of-blue face set in a "Nobody saw that, did they?" expression.

For her sake, Tony did pretend not to have seen a thing. Loki actually grinned. Tony couldn't totally blame him. He, too, might feel a certain antipathy towards someone who threatened him with a wrench--and Nebula hadn't actually been hurt.

"Okay, wait..." Tony began

Loki raised his head a few inches.

"That thing, skin, membrane over there..." He nodded to indicate the location of Scraps's vertical bounce-castle. "That's yours?"

Tony could guess the Asgardian's answer through his general attitude alone. It clearly said, Who do you think created it, you Midgardian ignoramous? You might thank me for your ability to breathe as well--not that you ever will.

"Thank you so much for the air, Loki," Tony said, with complete insincerity, considering that even advanced alien sorcerers (some of them) needed oxygen. "Not that you didn't seal off this area and provides the breathables entirely for your own benefit."

Loki shook his head once, hands slipping down out of his hair, then turned his face away. Various metal surfaces around them began to vibrate, until out of those vibrations rose a voice like 500 half-insect David Hedisons in the original version of The Fly.

"I called," they buzzed at him. "I called."

"Called what? Called who? Your buddy Thanos?"

Nebula let loose a noise remarkably like a growl.

The fly-voice vibrations stopped, to Tony's immense gratitude. He'd begun to fear his teeth would be permanently on edge, not to mention every single hair anywhere on his body. This was not, by any means, a pleasant sensation.

If anything, though, what came next seemed worse, because there, all of a sudden, was Loki's posh, supercilious voice rattling around inside his head: No, you utter dolt, I called my brother. I called Thor.

Tony started to snap something back, then caught himself. He and Loki might never be BFF's, and maybe Loki had done it all for his own benefit, but he couldn't argue that the god of useful skills hadn't helped them out of a seriously tight situation.

"Really? Well... that was damn helpful. Any other pleasant surprises for us?" Tony coughed again a couple times, the sandpaper and glass shards in his throat more obnoxious than ever. He'd be really super happy if Thor (if he'd heard his brother, and wasn't otherwise occupied, or recently turned into a substantial pile of Asgardian dust) got there really, really soon.

Actually, he didn't want to think of dust. Thinking of dust made him think of Peter, his scared young voice and his body crumbling away in Tony's arms.

Loki raised his eyes, as if praying for patience from the acoustical tile on the ceiling.

After a minute, Tony felt the god's voice inside his head again. The experience hadn't improved in comfort during the time between Loki's last statement and this one, but his tone had changed, the extreme snootiness replaced by something almost childlike, a younger brother's faith in his big bro. An absolute trust that Thor would save them.

My brother isn't dead. He has heard me. He will come with great speed to find us.

Chapter Text


"So," Tony said, "Now we wait, huh?"

Except for Nebula, who'd found a corner as far away as possible from both of them to (probably) pretend to sleep in, nobody had moved. Tony still occupied his prime spot by the viewport, Loki held up the wall he'd so thoroughly dented with his high-velocity entry. 

We wait, Loki agreed, shooting a narrow-eyed glance in Tony's direction.

It sounded (to use a verb that didn't really apply, but would have to do until someone came up with a better term for ancient SpaceVikings inserting thoughts directly into your brain) like the god of overly-loud head-voices had done some kind of tweak to his volume control, because Tony's skull no longer quite felt like it was ready to blast apart into its twenty-two separate bones.

Speaking of which...

"Headache?" he asked, more--true confessions time--from his own good ol' brand of self-interest than from any personal worry about the god of abrupt appearances's general health. Loki had hit that wall really hard, and since blood-filled eyes weren't usually the best indicator of brain health, Tony had his concerns. The possibility of the Asgardian suddenly kicking the bucket from a delayed but catastrophic brain-bleed didn't strike him as out of the question, and since if Loki went, so did their air, it felt like a good idea to clarify.

My eyes, Loki told him, in tones of injured dignity, not answering Tony's actual question. Maybe, for his people, admitting to anything less that a obviously fatal wound wasn't considered cool. Continue to be exactly as they are meant to be. And to call me an Asgardian isn't entirely accurate.

"Huh."

Your monosyllabic utterances mean nothing to me.

"Okay--and that's two syllables, by the way--maybe you can correct my memory. 'Loki of Asgard.' 'Burdened with glorious purpose.' Either of those ringing any bells?"

There is no glorious purpose. There never was. Only loss, control and despair.

"Damn, you really are the emo goth kid brother, aren't you?"

You wish an explanation? Why should I bother? You wouldn't listen. You most certainly didn't the last time.

"Jesus, Lok, you really, really are the overly emo goth little brother. Speaking of which, what's with the dying squirrel voice? What's with putting words in my head? Could you always do the Jedi Mind Trick? It's not a thing I remember from your first visit."

Naturally, only you and your fellow Midgardians are allowed to feel emotion for the hurts of the past. Loki's mental voice had gone bone-dry. Others will be muzzled for your convenience. Why should they be allowed to speak?

An unexpected little pang of guilt hit Tony's chest. Okay, yes, the magic-suppressing handcuffs had been one thing, the muzzle maybe another. He never had been completely happy about the muzzle.

"That's not what I meant," he said. His voice came out sounding totally guilty.

Loki shot him a look. A "yeah, right" kind of look.

To answer your question, he went on, No, the ability to speak in your mind, or another's, isn't something I could, as you put it, 'always do.' I might summon memories, detect the edges of intention, read emotion with some facility, slip suggestions into a consciousness, even make outright falsehoods appear credible to unguarded minds. What I could, most emphatically, not do is place words into a man's mind. Or... Loki paused. "Read anything of his thoughts in the moment.

"Like you're doing right now."

Loki didn't bother to answer that one, not that Tony really needed an answer. As someone's proverb-prone Nana once said, the "proof was in the pudding."

Tony had never met his Nana Stark, if she even existed under that name. He'd long suspected his dad, Howard, genius, billionaire, playboy, absentee father, had been a guy made up of secrets, one of the major ones being that his real last name hadn't been Stark, any more than his first name had been Howard. He tended to avoid the fact that he'd actually grown up dirt-poor on the lower east side, the son of a Jewish fruitmonger and a factory seamstress, parents he'd discarded like an old pair of socks, because they didn't exactly fit in with story he was writing for his life.

His mom's mom, Nana Carbonell, had been tiny--like, childishly tiny, which Tony, as a five-year-old kid, had found extremely appealing. He remembered her pressing a shiny quarter into his hand each time he and his mom visited her in the nursing home.

As if he wasn't the son of a billionaire.

He'd kept every single one of those coins. He still had them, stashed away in a little box in the bottom drawer of his dresser.

Loki was watching him, a slight crease between his brows. A weird little ripple went through Tony's head, not really an image (more like a quick flash) of a giant blue guy--like, literally a giant, no less than three meters tall, and maybe even more--bald as an egg. With that flash came a whisper of words, almost too low to hear: the monster we are taught to fear...

All of which made no sense whatsoever.

Loki went on, as if that little interlude had never happened, Furthermore, I should not have, by any means beyond some electronical device to which I currently have no access, been able to contact Thor at such distance. From a lesser distance, perhaps, but not across the vastness of space that lies between here and Midgard.

Electronical, Tony thought. How quaint.

The weird thing was, he kind of liked the word. It reminded him of Cap's uber-awkward attempts to deal with 21st century popular culture.

Back in the days when Tony still found Steve amusing. Back in the days he'd seen him as the epitome of integrity. Back in the days when he still considered the guy a friend, not just an ally. Someone he could depend on. Someone he could trust to back him up.

I shouldn't be here, Loki said out of the blue.

"What makes you say that? You don't enjoy the present company? The decor offends your princely sensibilities? You object to the lack of refreshments?"

Because time has passed, but I can't tell how much. Because I didn't travel here by my own agency...

The seriousness of Loki's words aside, Tony found himself momentarily distracted by the thought of some kind of specialty travel agency that helped the god of showing up where he was least expected bop around the Universe. He kind of had to wonder what their shiny brochures would look like.

Loki didn't even react to this goofy little sidestep of thought. One hand had gone back to his throat, covering up his Adam's apple. His eyes--as much as Tony could read anything in their bloody redness--were doing a million mile stare past him, out the viewport.

That look made Tony more than a little nervous, though, for the life of him, he couldn't have said why. Maybe it was the fact that Loki's face had shifted into an expression that pretty much read as total anguish, or that his sharp black claws had started biting into the smooth blue skin of his throat.

I was dead, Loki said, even his head-voice unsteady with pain and fear. I know, as an absolute truth--if such a thing exists--that I was dead. I felt the might of Thanos's hand, and my feet lifting from the floor...

Sounds familiar, Tony thought.

I could not defend myself--there could be no defense. I only wanted... Wetness rose in Loki's eyes, but not even the tiniest little droplet spilled.

Maybe the Lokster wasn't so completely emo after all.

I only thought, my brother must escape this... He must escape. For Asgard. For its people, and the little that remains. What use am I now, I considered, except as a distraction? My powers are worth nothing against the Titan. Nornir, he could toss even the Hulk away like a toy. What use could I be, a puny god? Always a puny god.

Loki paused, taking a long, shaky breath.

I felt blood fill my head, the vessels of my brain bursting, and the point at which my larynx shattered, as my body tried frantically to heal itself. I felt the lack of air in my lungs, and the vertebrae of my neck pushed apart, and then a sharp crack, as of the earth cracking open when the earthquakes come...

Loki's shoulders lifted, though whether that was a defensive move or a shrug never completed, Tony could not have said. He did know they looked tense as hell.

I was dead. I must surely have been dead. A long dark came upon me.

Another deep, shaky breath.

"And then, at great speed, as if hurled through the air, I arrived in this place. This ship...

Loki glanced around him, taking in the whole dark, depressing mess, maybe for the first time.

I was here, he went on, As I am now, possessing powers that I should not possess. How can this be explained? What might have brought about a resurrection, and such change?

Another long pause. Such powerful change...

And what do you intend to do with those "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as Bowie might have said? Tony thought.

"You're being pretty damn open about this, Lok," he said aloud. "Any particular motive?"

I scarcely need more practice in the arts of prevarication or misdirection. God of lies, as you may recall. Loki's voice, inside Tony's head, sounded remarkably bitter.

After a couple minutes of radio silence, Loki went on, Who was the woman, in the stories of Midgard, who foretold and foretold, yet was never believed?

"You seemed to have mistaken me for a literature professor. Tony Stark, remember? Engineer?"

Loki said nothing to that, though a vague cloud of, This excuses a woeful ignorance of your own Midgardian culture? hovered in the air above his head.

"So, the oxygen. The bouncy wall. Were those things you could do? Before, I mean."

Loki looked offended, as if Tony had asked him whether he'd learned yet to tell time or tie his shoes, though he did manage a fairly civil answer. Of course. Those are basic manipulations of molecules. One need not even approach the task on the atomic, much less the sub-atomic, levels.

"So magic really is just physics too advanced for our feeble Midgardian minds to understand?"

Loki actually laughed out loud, his hand immediately flying to his throat when the sound that came out wasn't a quasi-British ripple of civilized amusement, but something more like the sound of a crow getting crunched by a runaway car. Along with that came a major sense of, "Ouch!"

The god of unexpectedly understanding certain basic concepts of physics turned his face away, clearly embarrassed both by the weird noise and the little flicker of feeling he'd let slip--the same way, it hit Tony, that he'd been embarrassed by the runes showing up on his magical parchment square.

And yet Loki seemed perfectly fine with sitting around in his princely undies all damn day.

Magic is magic, Loki said, his presence gone so quiet inside Tony's head it struck him as the softest of soft whispers. The physical sciences play a small part in our studies. To manipulate the physical world, one must understand the physical world.

"Fair enough," Tony answered, because what else could be said? As far as it went, Loki's answer made decent sense.

Face still turned away, Loki stretched a hand into the air in front of him. That hand instantly disappeared, as if it had suddenly, bloodlessly, been severed at the wrist.

Tony stifled the involuntary "Ewww!" that wanted to burst out of him, wondering what in hell the god of unexpected happenings might have up his sleeve.

This turned out to be--when Loki's hand reappeared completely unscathed--two fancy glass bottles, each filled with something that bore an uncanny resemblance to Fanta Orange. He rolled one across the floor in the still fake-sleeping (maybe) Nebula's general direction. The other appeared neatly in Tony's hand.

He stared at the bottle, amazed by the sudden, and not unappreciated, presence of something drinkable, but even more amazed by what he'd just seen Loki do.

The god of actually managing to astound Tony Stark had clearly either accessed or made a pocket universe. A fucking pocket universe, which Loki used as casually as Tony might use a mini-fridge,

"Is that what you call 'manipulating the physical world?'" Tony asked.

No, Loki answered, a look of unrestrained amusement lighting his face, I believe it's what you of Midgard call "showing off."

Chapter Text

Tony watched Nebula try to navigate the overly complicated clamp-and-clasp thingy that held on her bottle's cap, making bets with himself how soon she'd quit in frustration, crack the top off on the nearest hard surface and drink from the jagged neck. Her eyes, for once, looked sleepy, close to heavy-lidded, instead of angry and wary, making Tony think that her nap maybe hadn't been so fake after all.

He would have lost his bets, all of them, because Scraps figured out the puzzle long before he did, even managing to catch the cap in one hand as it shot off the bottle 

"Is this interloper likely to poison us?" She nodded toward Loki, then sniffed the violently-orange liquid inside, her face screwing up, possibly with distrust, possibly because of the truly alarming color. With Nebula, who knew?

"Dunno," Tony answered, throwing a little bit of a grin in Loki's direction. "Are you likely to poison us, interloper?"

Would you trust me if I said "no?" Loki countered. He didn't react at all to the grin, in fact his face seemed to shut down, turning into a mask of amused indifference. A completely fake look of amused indifference.

Did we actually hurt his feelings? Tony asked himself. Of course, from what he thought he knew of Loki, the god of fairly convincing acting would be perfectly capable of putting on an obviously phony mask of amused indifference to make you think you'd hurt his feelings when he actually did feel nothing but amused indifference. He suspected that if Loki's mind had a real-world analog, that analog would be a nautilus shell--a nice, tight spiral with all kinds of useful little pockets off the main channel.

I enjoyed that book, Loki thought, apropos of nothing.

See? A nautilus shell. With side chambers.

"What book?" Tony asked.

Nebula, bottle still held untasted in one hand, looked from one of them to the other as if they were both crazy men. Of course, as far as she was concerned, Loki was just a guy giving significant looks. Tony was a guy talking to himself. At length.

Shit, what if Loki actually could talk, and was just fucking with him?

Drink or do not drink, the god of suspect motivations told him. Your choice, ultimately, makes no difference to me. I'll merely inform my brother, when he arrives, that you expired due to stubbornness alone.

Tony had to laugh, even as he struggled to pop the overly-complicated top of his own bottle. Damn, if you wanted a drink of this shit, you really had to work for it. Or just maybe his hands had gone shaky with fear, stress, dehydration and four days with zero food.

He finally managed to pop the cap, shooting it across the room like a tiny puck hooked by an incompetent hockey player, while also splashing orangeness all over his hand. Tony took the fact that Loki's alien Fanta didn't immediately burn through his skin like acid as a pretty good sign. Also, he had to admit the drink smelled fantastic, like sweet, ripe peaches mixed with honeysuckle and almonds.

Wait, wasn't cyanide supposed to smell like almonds?

"You drink first." Nebula had done that thing she did, suddenly crossing a room before it seemed like she'd started to move. Tony had seen coyotes move the same way--one minute chowing down on your trash, the next halfway up the street, gazing at you like they were saying What? with their sarcastic yellow eyes.

Their speedy cyborg shoved the open bottle under Loki's aristocratic nose.

He gave a shrug, took it bottle from her hand, and drank. No guilt, no fear, no big deal.

A sensation of searing pain washed over Tony, worse than the horrible case of strep he'd had as a kid, so bad he found himself clutching at his own throat, involuntary wetness springing to his eyes.

Loki didn't so much as blink. But really, as Tony recalled, he'd hardly even reacted when Hulk flipped him around like a rottweiler with a chew toy, then pounded him, literally, into the floor. Nothing but that soft little leaky "Eeee..." sound, then out of the Loki-shaped hole bruised and bloody, but with a quip on his lips.

Tony found himself sucking in a mouthful just to drown the burning, half surprised when the same awful sensation failed to fill his own throat. Instead, all the glass-shards and grit just seemed to dissolve, the relief so intense the wetness in his eyes turned to to actual tears, running in streams down his cheeks.

He'd thought he was going to die. He'd been absolutely sure he was going to die, and now he wasn't. Not today, at least, and maybe not tomorrow.

His tongue tasted, lightly, of something like apricot juice, but not. A tart-sweet-slightly-bitter flavor, with a floral undernote. Apple blossom? Cherry blossom? Tony couldn't tell.

Against all advice given by any and all survival experts ever, he drained the entire bottle dry in four more gulps, surprising himself by not instantly throwing up, when his shrunken stomach should have been capable of no other reaction.

The drink is called vishlar, Loki informed him. A cure made available on Sakaar for drunkenness and other disorders resultant from the abuse of one's senses. It has anti-emetic properties.

"No kidding."

Upon Sakaar, it's nearly indispensable.

"And what's Sakaar? Big party planet?"

A brightly-colored Hel filled with the refuse of worlds. Myself included, Loki answered. He hadn't gotten any quieter, mentally speaking, but Tony could feel him pulling back, shutting down.

"Well, even if your 'Sakaar' is the dumpster of all the worlds, you could totally market this stuff on Earth. I feel like I just pounded two Red Bulls with a Mountain Dew chaser and then a hit or two of weed to mellow me out at the end. Seriously, it's amazing!"

I'm glad you find yourself so refreshed, Loki answered, notes of irony and tiredness further darkening his mental voice. I'm weary, and the time of my brother's arrival draws nearer. Wake me when that happens, if you will.

"Wait... he 'draws nearer?'  It's been how long since you called. An hour? Hours?"

You have a highly deficient sense of time, Stark.

"Maybe. But I know it's been less than a day. What the hell kind of ship is Thor hijacking to get here? Not to mention, how does he intend to find us, considering our current address seems to be 'Middle of Nowhere. Space?'"

He will find us. That is all. Loki lay down on his side, face to the wall and his legs still tucked up against his chest. Tony couldn't tell if this fetal position was deliberate, or merely the result of a seriously narrow space versus the god of excellent beverages' long legs. Leather--or what looked like leather--clothing, black and blue this time instead of the black, gold and green from his previous visit to Earth, rippled over his body, covering Loki from neck to toes.

"I'm gonna miss the princely underoos, y'know," Tony said.

May sleep find you, Loki answered, totally stepping on Tony's joke with his non-reaction. Dream of your Virginia Potts, and of Midgard.

"Is that the Loki version of 'sweet dreams?'"

Good night, sleep tight, don't let the Cimex lectularius bite, the god of unexpected reactions answered.

Maybe it was an aftereffect of the vishlar (or not slowly dying of thirst), but Tony had to laugh. He did recognize the scientific name for bedbugs, after all.

And where, exactly, he wondered, Had Loki picked up that one? Out of Tony's own unguarded head?

"I know what book you meant," he told Loki quietly. "It's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Because Captain Nemo's ship was the Nautilus."

"Nemo" means "no one," Loki told him, then laughed in a way Tony didn't really understand, a laugh that wasn't exactly full of mirth.

Tony watched the tension slowly ease from his shoulders and back as Loki drifted into sleep.

"Don't your people have the custom of speaking ritual words when given a gift?" Scraps asked him. She'd returned to her original spot, and her dark eyes, watching Tony in about the same way a seasoned hunter might watch dangerous prey, remained just as hot and angry as ever.

"Ritual words? Uh... no. First I've heard of it."

This time Nebula's expression held heavy (not to mention sarcastic) overtones of Hmn... I was sure I'd heard...

Then it came to him.

"Magic words," Tony told her. "We call them 'the magic words.'"

"And one doesn't speak magic words to a sorcerer? Even those magic words?"

Christ, he was getting etiquette lessons from a blue alien cyborg.

"I doubt Loki cares if I say 'thank you' or not. Besides, you didn't say it either, I noticed."

"It isn't my custom," Scraps informed him."

"Loki would laugh at me if I went all Miss Manners on him."

"And the fear of mockery is sufficient to make you forget your cultural ritual?"

Tony felt fairly sure he'd received this exact same lecture (minus the "it isn't my custom" and "cultural ritual" parts) nearly fifty years ago, as delivered by Edwin Jarvis.

"I perhaps would have died," Nebula informed him. "You would certainly have died. Within hours."

"Okay, if you want I'll tell Loki both 'thank you' and 'sorry' in the morning." Tony gestured toward their silent companion. "When he wakes up. He's sleeping."

"What I want bears no part in this," Scraps said. "As I've said, it's your ritual."

Tony rolled his eyes at her with full "Yes, Mommy" sarcasm.

Of course, to Nebula, the eye-roll meant absolutely nothing. She pulled out a small knife that she'd hidden somewhere on her person and began to strop it briskly against her overly-complicated leathers.

"Is he the one?" she asked, after some time had passed.

"The one? What one?"

"The magician. The sorcerer."

"What sorcerer? Jesus, Nebula, could you be a little more vague? I wouldn't want to understand a single frickin' thing you say, after all."

Scraps didn't even react, and Tony's cranky impatience obviously meant zip to her. Instead she held her knife up in the insufficient light, admiring its new shine from several angles.

"He's blue now," she said. "In the caverns, he was mostly red."

Tony stared at her, his entire brain just one big, Huh?

"Caverns?" he asked faintly. "What caverns would these be, Nebula?"

"The caverns of the Chitauri," Scraps answered, in such a totally off-hand way Tony found it more than a little scary. "From which none escape."

I escaped, Tony thought.

Yes, and at the cost of how many years of PTSD? his head reminded him. PTSD that all the meds, all the alcohol, all the sessions with SHIELD shrinks that you never saw a second time, because there was no fucking way they'd comprehend a word?

I flew out, Tony reminded himself, to stop the shaking in his hands. I flew out. Just in time, I flew out.

He didn't feel good now, he felt sick.

"How come you were there?" Tony asked, amazed to find his voice fairly steady.

I can still fake it, he thought. I still can.

"I accompanied my never-father, Thanos. He wished to show me how he'd break a mind and build it again, according to his own needs, and as an instrument of his desires. He wasn't there on every day, of course. but The Other and his minions served his will. To do their master's bidding was a source of pride to them, and they performed their duties well. Not for lack of trying did the magician prove difficult to crack."

Clint's words came back to Tony then, "Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out and stuff something else in? Do you know what it's like to be unmade?"

"I understand it took nearly a year," Scraps continued.

Tony gaped at her. His jaw literally dropped as a few of Loki's recent words drifted through his head, leaving wounds in their path. 

There is no glorious purpose. There never was. Only loss, control and despair.

"How..." His voice came out choked and raspy. "How could you watch that?"

Nebula gave a dry little bark of a laugh, the first he'd ever heard from her, and of course totally devoid of humor. "Do you actually believe I had a choice?"

"Freedom... Life's greatest lie." Hadn't Loki said those words, about a million years ago now?

"There is no choice," Nebula told him, in a flat, quiet voice. "There never has been a choice. Not with him. What more is there to say?"

You wouldn't listen, Loki had told him. You most certainly didn't the last time.

You should have tried, Lok, Tony thought, Or tried harder. I might have listened. You should have said.

Loki's words still accused him, though at the time, their tone hadn't been accusatory, just weary: Others will be muzzled for your convenience. Why should they be allowed to speak?

I'm sorry, Loki. I'm so sorry, Tony thought. We were arrogant and stupid, and the opposite of heroic, even your brother. 'He's adopted?' Fuck that. I wish...

He didn't know what he wished. Maybe not to have to add this burden of guilt to all the ones he already carried?

But, no, that would be a selfish waste of a wish, one more act of self-absorption from Tony "The World Revolves Around Me" Stark.

I wish you hadn't been hurt like that, Lok. I wish I'd heard what you were trying to say--though Jesus, you didn't exactly make it easy, you god of mangled emotions.

I wish you could forgive me.

Across the narrow non-room, Loki slept. Tony knew he had to be sleeping for real because of all the little random jerks and twitches his body made, and because Pepper told him he did the same thing when he slept--and sometimes even worse.

He kept Pep awake, Tony knew that. He also hoped she forgave him. He nearly forgave her, for when she hadn't been there, and all he'd wanted was to hear her voice.

He felt weird, empty and sad, as if Thor would never come. As if he'd never see home again.

Loki didn't move on to something worse, no thrashing or yelling, no sheets and pillowcases--since there were none--getting soaked with sweat.

Instead the god of deep regret just lay there, body tucked up into a neat packet and face turned to the wall, a rime of frost whitening his dark leather clothing.

He just lay there, silent and absolutely still now, and wept in his sleep. 

Chapter Text

Tony had nearly drifted off to dreamland himself, semi-hypnotized by the sight of Nebula taking out something like seventeen knives, one by one, from different parts of her form-fitting outfit, then stropping them to a mellow gleam on the leather. It appeared to be a kind of hobby for her, the way other people enjoyed knitting or crossword puzzles.

His eyes finally closed, and he hovered just past the edge of a dream about working in the lab with Bruce. They'd developed a fully autonomous flying car that operated on anti-grav tech, but instead of celebrating, his ScienceBro started to ramble on about the possible environmental impact on the local coyote population. About the time dream-Tony began arguing that Bruce didn't need to worry, because the coyotes could always go to Starbucks, real-life Tony decided dreams were stupid, not to mention pointless, and made himself wake up.

To his surprise, he found Loki--who'd earlier looked down for the count in the extremely long term--not only already awake but on his feet. The god of surprisingly short sleep-cycles still wore the black-and-blue leathers he'd had on the night (or whatever period of time had just passed) before, and he seemed to be practicing his own cultural ritual, one that involved prowling back and forth just inside the membrane that separated their little chamber from the rest of the ship, like a tiger in an old-style cage at the zoo.

Not that they really had that kind of cage anymore, with the concrete and the metal bars, the kind he'd visited as a kid.

He wondered what the jails looked like in Asgard. Had they put Loki in a cell? Thor hadn't said

"Lok. Chill out," Tony called. "There's like two meters of space. You're gonna step on Nebula, and she'll stick a knife in your ass."

"I would," Scraps agreed. Tony couldn't tell if she was joking, but he kind of thought not.

Loki stopped, turning toward him but pausing halfway, managing to watch both Tony and the barrier without his eyes doing goofy things, as Tony felt fairly sure his own eyes would have. What made this even more impressive was that Loki's eyes weren't bloody-red-all-across any more, they'd turned green, a deep intense emerald that looked almost black in the low light.

Funny, that. He'd seen Loki's eyes close up--way too close up, in fact--and could have sworn they'd been an equally intense blue.

Only then he remembered what Nebula told him, and felt guilty and depressed.

No need, the god of varying eye-color told him. What's the saying on Midgard? "The ship has sailed?"

"Close enough." Tony found himself staring. Loki's long black hair hung loose, well below his shoulder blades and unexpectedly curly. He seemed to have shed the broken stubs of his old horns, but new ones had begun to grow in, something like the little devil horns of a cheesy Halloween costume, but beautifully-shaped, elegant, and flocked with a soft black velvet.

Something hit Tony in that moment, something he couldn't name, born out of the combination of Loki's profile (God, those cheekbones!) and something else--the flicker of emerald in the depths of those dark eyes, or the way he held himself, straight-backed and poised, like a dancer.

"Whatcha doin', Lok?" Tony asked, his own voice raspy. "Sleep well?"

I dreamed.... Loki began, then left the phrase dangling.

"Me too. About flying cars and coyotes. And you have no idea in hell what I'm talking about, do you?"

Loki gazed at him a long while, eyes slightly narrowed. We have ships of the air.

"See? Flying cars! We're on the same page."

A little flicker of smile crossed Loki's mouth. And also hundar.

"My turn to be clueless. Completely clueless."

Another flicker of smile. Hounds, Stark.

"You could actually call me Tony, you know. It's kinda standard."

Are we friends now? I hadn't realized.

"Snarky bastard." Tony found himself laughing, because that's all Loki's response had been. Not snobbery, or hatred, just snark.

His off-hand comment seemed to hit deeper, and not at all in a comfortable way. Loki turned his face straight ahead, as if studying the barrier for minuscule flaws. Tony had an inkling that he'd just said something deeply insulting, but didn't know how to apologize, or take the words back again.

Entirely likely, answered the god of misunderstood cultural rules.

"So, what are you doing?" Tony asked, in a probably vain attempt to drag the conversation back to safer ground. "Waiting for your bro?"

I smell the lightning of the Bifrost, Loki answered. How or why, I can't imagine. Heimdall is dead, his sword destroyed.

Well, that made sense, Tony thought.

There isn't room here. Thor will need a larger space for the pattern, and I thought he might like to breathe as he arrives.

"Aren't you a thoughtful brother."

Generally, no. On the whole, I'd expect Thor finds me fairly trying, and yet..." Loki shrugged, though his shoulders stayed just as tense as they'd ever been.

"He loves you."

Oddly enough. I'm sure it's for my many sterling qualities.

The god of family drama glanced over at Nebula and smiled.

Lady, will you come along? he asked, in a much warmer tone than he used with Tony, extending his hand in a way that could almost be called "gentlemanly."

Nebula didn't take the hand, but she did give Loki a tentative, my-mouth-is-gonna-crack-if-I-do-too-much-of-this kind of smile.

Well, well, Tony thought, When have those two been talking, and about what? 

We bonded over being the bad seed, and the disappointment, in each of our families, and of having been either discarded, or stolen from our homelands. And also, of course, those shades of color which best compliment blue.

"So no 'mewling quim' for Nebula, huh?"

Don't be deliberately unpleasant, said the god of contradictory behavior. That was an unusual circumstance, 

"How so? Natasha thought you were fairly serious. Actually, she thought you were a creep."

I needed a response.

"Okay."

For Romanov to be angered, and to have that response lead, in time, to Banner's rage.

"Interesting."

Indeed.

With a tiny flick of his hand, Loki dispersed the membrane, and the outside air rushed in, cooler and thinner than the air inside their cubby, as if they'd climbed up into the mountains. This new air was breathable (in theory), but Tony, at least, had to work about ten times harder for each breath he took.

Scraps and Loki, on the other hand, didn't seem bothered.

Loki's words had piqued Tony's curiosity. What did the god of confusing statements actually mean, and why was Bruce getting his Hulk on something he'd desired? Counterintuitive didn't seem to cover it.

He didn't ask though. Because oxygen. Or its lack.

Halfway down the short corridor that led from their cubby to the one reasonably-sized space on the entire ship, the whole wreck began to vibrate, each shudder so fast and so intense the wall panels rattled, random bolts popping out and shooting back and forth across the hall. One hit Scraps smack in the head, but she didn't even flinch--maybe, like Loki's, her skull was made of sterner stuff.

The deck lurched, and Tony lurched with it, but Loki hauled him upright again, his fingers bruisingly tight around Tony's arm.

A muffled boom followed--muffled, but still loud enough to make Tony's eardrums ache, then cause his ears to pop. The ship rattled from stem to stern and Tony would have fallen a second time, if Loki hadn't held him up.

Such an idiot... he heard Loki say, and wondered if the god of helping inept people escape might be talking about him.

Tony started to smell smoke, and then the reek of melting plastic (or alien equivalent) as the insulation and wire-coatings caught fire and burned. Flames licked through the ship's seams, only the thin air preventing a conflagration. Thick, black, eye-stinging smoke billowed around them, which made finding their way nearly impossible, but Loki seemed to manage nonetheless--up until a second boom sounded and the whole ship twisted, sending Tony into a meter-deep drop, and Loki with him.

He lay flat on his belly with the weight on top of him, fire and smoke everywhere, the sound of tearing metal carrying him away, away, all the way back to the wilds of Afghanistan, to another muddle of fire and tearing metal, and blood, and screams.

They were his own screams. Tony knew that, the same way he knew that this time he would die, absolutely would die, that the shrapnel had already started burrowing toward his heart, and if the fire didn't kill him, then those vicious little scraps of metal would.

He'd escaped once, cheated death once. He wouldn't escape a second time.

We have Canidae of several sorts, an ice-cold voice spoke up inside Tony's head, a voice he clung to the way a drowning sailor might cling to the wreckage of his ship. The hundar, of course, as I mentioned, but also the úlfur, like Geri and Freki, who sat always at Odin's feet. Horrible smelly beasts--he never had them washed, of course, mainly because whoever attempted such an affront would lose a hand, at the very least. Both their names, aptly, meant "greedy," and truer names were never given, for the Nornir forbid one's plate was left unattended for so much as a heartbeat during a feast. I don't believe I ever actually ate a morsel at any celebration when I was small, for one or the other, when I was at table, always pushed its face into my dinner and simply inhaled. There are challenges, you know, to being the youngest and smallest. I may well have learned magic exclusively to set the tails of those gluttonous monsters afire whenever they tried to make away with my meals.

Shut up, Loki, Tony thought. It's Afghanistan again, and I'm dying here!

It is no part of Avagana whatsoever, Loki's icy voice continued. You are maudlin and deluded, and this is Nebula's ship. Stand on your feet. Thor is here.

A powerful hand twisted in Tony's flimsy tank top. The fabric gave a little, but held in the end, and he was hoisted to his feet, then dragged forward. He started to panic again, scared of being manhandled, afraid to be taken anywhere against his will.

The sléttuúlfur, are what I believe you meant when you referred to coyotes. The flat-wolves. The eaters of offal. Loki's arms wrapped around him, holding Tony close.

It didn't hurt. It didn't hurt at all.

Hush, Loki told him, gently, not the least bit of snark anywhere in his voice.

"You hush," Tony answered, trying to hold back hysterical giggles born of terror and relief. Say one more word about family Canidae, and I swear I'll feed you to the first one we meet. Jesus, Lok!"

The question is, are you still afraid? Are you caught in the Avagana wildlands, with the world burning around you, or are you here, with me, ready for my brother, and the Bifrost, to carry you home?

"Here," Tony mumbled. "I'm here."

Yes, Loki answered, You are here. You are safe. And soon you will be home.

Chapter Text

This is the most boring room in the Universe, Tony thought, which was, basically, the stupidest thought in the world for someone in his position, because that sheer, unadorned boringness told him he must be back on Earth, no longer facing certain death inside a spaceship that looked like a spatchcocked bird, in the middle of endless nothingness. The expected reaction would be to do some kind of unrestrained happy dance, crack open the good champagne, then hug and kiss every single person he could reach, irregardless of gender.

That wasn't happening, mostly because he'd somehow landed, on his hands and knees, on the vaguely-shiny-but-dull not-quite-black floor, right beside an indoor plant (a dwarf banana, maybe?--Pep would know) in a large, boring medium-gray pot.

Tony became particularly aware of this pot in the course of hauling himself upright, though still on his knees, by pulling on its rim, at which point he embarked on a body-and-soul-wrenching series of dry-heaves over its soil, shaded by the broad leaves of the slightly unhealthy-looking and totally generic plant.

Really, what other kind of heaves could he possibly have since, other than Loki's Sakaarian Space Fanta, he hadn't had a thing to eat or drink in over five days, and not much before then, not since he and Nebula had grudgingly agreed to ration what meager supplies they had, which mostly consisted of a stack of dry beige bars that smelled vaguely like wallpaper paste.

So there Tony clung, his body seeming grimly determined to turn itself inside out, overwhelmed with humiliation, travel sickness, and the aftereffects of the worse episode of PTSD he'd suffered in years.

Not to mention the added shock of being not-dead.

About two heaves in, someone started to hold his head, one hand on his forehead and another on the back of his neck.

Pepper wasn't into that kind of thing and, normally neither was Tony, being more the type of person who preferred to scuttle into the bathroom and lock the door tightly behind him. He'd had a certain amount of experience in this practice, given his close personal relationship with alcohol.

This time, oddly, he wasn't embarrassed. The hands on his head felt soothing, cooling his sweaty skin. Even more soothing, though, was the voice in his head. 

Be calm. You're home now. You're safe. We've only had an adventure.

Fuck your 'adventure,' Lok, Tony thought back. Adventures like that I can do without.

The god of being totally chill only laughed, once more completely inside his head, and not in a mean way. You're better now, he said. You'll be well. No need to add this to your burdens.

The weird thing was, Tony did feel better. His stomach finally decided to settle down, and his panic just... went.

These episodes never just went. The really bad ones clung to him for days, like pulling around a heavy weight while wearing wet wool clothes.

When Tony finally sat back on his heels, Loki's long, cool hands lingered on his shoulders, not pushing down, not expecting anything, just resting there. It was pretty much the most comforting thing he'd ever felt.

Do we have company? Tony asked. Besides Thor and Scraps, I mean.

One could say that, Loki answered.

Then what do you think about prevaricating a little about your identity? For the time being, anyway. Let the others see those sterling qualities you talked about.

You realize, of course, that I am, amongst other things, a chaos god? Those qualities may not be easily detected by those who don't know me. Actually, those who do know me might find them even more difficult to detect.

I like a little chaos, you know, Tony answered. Now and then.

How do you feel about about a great deal of chaos, on a near-constant basis? In the words of your great Midgardian sage, Popeye, "I yam what I yam."

How the fuck do you know about Popeye?

To quote another sage, Tyrion Lannister, "I drink and I know things"--though "I read and I know things" might be more accurate. I've actually traveled to Midgard a number of times, and managed not to invade. Meddled now and then, perhaps, but not invaded. Prevaricate, if you like, then watch Thor give me away in less than thirty seconds.

He wouldn't!

Alas, it can't be avoided. Thor, the gods of Aesir bless him, remains forever Thor.

Loki helped Tony to his feet, after which he surprised himself by staying more or less steady. A little shaky around the hands and knees, maybe, but steady. The god of accurately assessing unusual situations had been right. There, staring at him from their various positions around the conference table, was the whole original team. Plus Rhodey. And a giant raccoon.

He glanced sideways at the god of rapid costume changes, who somewhere along the line had managed to shift into a getup that made him look less like he shopped for high-end men's wear in Asgard, and more like he'd been costumed to star in a Bollywood musical. Weirdly, Bollywood musical clothing suited him perfectly, as did Loki's new hairstyle, which would have been admired by any fashionable elf in Middle Earth.

Thor, on the other hand, looked a little rough. Dressed in shapeless sweats over a gray tee, his golden locks cut short, he looked like a man recovering from a wicked cold, or else a bad hangover.

Nornir, here it comes, Loki said, with a combination of amusement and ruefulness.

Thor, it seemed, had picked up a giant hammer/ax thingy with a twisted wooden handle somewhere in his travels, and this fearsome-if-oversized weapon currently occupied Mjolnir's place in the thunder god's right hand. His face bore a look like Thor was trying hard to do a long-division problem in his head, only without much success. He glanced around the room, obviously thinking, Brother? Where's my brother?

Loki sent out a complicated series of words, words Tony knew were meant for Thor, not for him, mainly because they seemed to be in a totally unfamiliar and overly-difficult-to-pronounce language. He thought, though, that he could guess the gist of them.

Much as we appreciate the timely rescue, dear brother, it seems projecting the entire force of the Bifrost onto a dead ship floating helplessly in space may not have been the best of ideas. Let's try to avoid doing that again, shall we, Thor?

Thor beamed in a truly clueless way. "My teammates! Sweet rabbit! Here is my brother, alive and well!"

Only at that point did it seem to hit him that the rest of the team might not be 100% behind having Loki back on earth. Being Thor, he wasn't capable of doing a quick little sideways shuffle, something along the lines of, "Oh, no, no, did you think I meant Loki? This is my other brother. My blue brother. Sven, meet the team!"

Instead the god of thunder, being constitutionally unable to lie, let go of his mammoth Manga ax/hammer (the ax part took a giant chunk out of the floor) and charged ahead with arms spread wide. Meanwhile, the entire rest of the team, plus Rhodey and the raccoon Thor apparently thought was a rabbit (because Thor), but minus Bruce, pointed their weapons in Loki's direction.

Nebula, who'd apparently be absorbing all this in total silence, shot Tony a Look. A look that clearly said, Did you see that coming? I saw that coming.

Having reached Loki, Thor wrapped him up in the tightest of tight bear hugs. At which point all hell, literally, broke loose--if hell could be defined as purple indoor lightning, threads of entirely different tealish-colored lightning that wove a complicated net around both brothers, a series of transparent emerald tentacles that waved through the air, and green-and-gold flames that made a deafening roaring sound as they surged up out of the floor.

The entire building seemed to jump a meter or two to the left, all the windows shimmering with an single high, ear-piercing note that caused several of them to shatter. The roar, meanwhile, grew louder and louder and louder, sounding like all the lions of the world voicing their displeasure at once.

The brothers flew apart as if a bomb had gone off between them--which maybe one had. Thor slammed into the back wall, where he left a Thor-shaped indent in the gray-painted wallboard. Loki, blown in the opposite direction, shattered a whole bank of windows as he hit them, then slid down in a veritable deluge of glass.

Everyone, Tony and the non-rabbit included, stared open-mouthed.

"What the hell," Steve Rogers said at last, clearly knocked for a loop to the point that he couldn't even "Language!" his very own self, "Was that?"

Chapter Text

Who'd even picked the most depressing color in the world for their HQ? Tony had to wonder--it sure as hell hadn't been him. He may not have been a whiz in the area of interior design, but even he knew not to paint a big, open area, where actual human beings (and friends) spent significant amounts of time, in a shade so unwelcoming it said, fairly definitively, "go away--or stay, and lose your will to live."

Tony thought about the walls (and their color) only because he, and everyone else, happened to be staring at Thor--usually so quick and physically adept in everything he did--peeling himself, in an unusually slow and clumsy way, out of the deep, thunder-god-shaped dent in the dismal wall. Small, ragged pieces of wallboard broke away as he worked himself free, plopping to the floor with a noise that probably would have been funny if Thor hadn't  looked like a textbook illustration of the word "gobsmacked," and not in a good way. Once free, he pressed his huge hands to his skull, as if trying to stop his head from exploding.

There seemed to be an awful lot of that going around lately.

"Thor, buddy, you okay?" Tony asked. The poor guy didn't even blink.

"Stark," Nebula snapped at him. Snapping seemed to be more or less her default mode of conversation when it came to Tony. She clearly liked Loki best. Maybe because he'd saved them. Maybe because he called her "Lady Nebula" instead of "Scraps."

Tony could kind of see her point.

"Uh-huh?"

"Loki requires our help."

Tony could see her point in that too. The god of being flung toward various easily-damaged surfaces at high velocity slumped in the middle of a veritable mountain of jagged window-shards. A further sprinkling of glass, pieces fine as glitter, sparkled on the shoulders of his midnight-blue Bollywood ensemble like distant stars in the night sky.

When it came to stars, Tony now considered himself an expert. He'd seen a shit-load of stars in the time he'd spent expecting his own imminent death beside that viewport.

Loki, while fully conscious, appeared to be wearing gobsmacked expression numero dos. It somehow didn't seem nearly as natural on his clever, sharp-eyed face as it did on his brother's. Tony imagined that his new friend caused that particular expression in others quite a bit more often than he wore it himself.

Wait... Tony thought. That's kinda a new thing.

Was Loki his friend now? He riffled through his memories and emotions since that hour he'd finally admitted to himself that he fully expected to suffocate, in the dark of space, unreachably far from home.

He'd been terrified to die, alone except for Scraps, who wasn't exactly one for existential conversations under those circumstances or, Tony expected, at any other time. He'd felt so lonely, so terrifyingly out of his element that (air and Thor-calling aside), he'd welcomed Loki 2.0 as a lifeline out of complete despair. He'd been a calming, comforting presence, too, during Tony's major PTSD freakout, and his time of becoming better acquainted than he wanted with the mini banana tree and its big gray pot. He even suspected that Loki might have contributed a little somethin'-somethin' to his speedy recovery from the plant pot incident.

But, really, was Loki his friend, or just a guy who'd happened to be there when Tony found himself at his most vulnerable? Tony couldn't deny that Loki (to use a metaphor that an alien prince had only the slimmest chance of understanding), totally stepped up to the plate. He hadn't needed to, he could have easily left them to their fate and not looked back.

Loki had certainly proved a better friend than several of the people in the room with them and, that aside, the events of their previous meeting now seemed to belong entirely to the distant past.

Loki also seemed to have changed a whole hell of a lot between then and now, like a similar but totally different person. Was that just was one of the god of unexpected kindness's many masks?

Tony thought not. He believed that the guy he'd gotten to know in their time together had been the genuine article, the real Loki and, based on that belief he decided to make a conscious choice: the person who'd saved his life, who'd banished his soul-destroying loneliness, and been more than decent to him in his own unique and snarky way was absolutely the real Loki.

And if he happened to be wrong...?

Well, fuck that. Tony honestly didn't care. Being suspicious of every single person who came into his life would end up only one way--with an incredibly lonely and alone Tony Stark.

Next to being trapped inside a Chitauri hell-hole, ending up alone topped the list of things that scared the shit out of him.

"Lok, you okay there?" Tony called out, right before he hurried over, Scraps on his tail.

A moment, please.

Even Loki's mental voice sounded dumbfounded, as if, right then, his considerable intelligence happened to be almost entirely devoted to grinding away at a problem that maybe couldn't be solved.

Tony really, really wanted to say something comforting right then, but the words escaped him. Words never escaped him, though, as pretty much every person he'd ever met could attest.

Loki's look of intense focus didn't last. After a few seconds, his eyes refocused and he smiled at Tony, a private smile, intended for him alone.

Tony knew then not to worry about his tongue-tied state. No words really needed to be said.

Speaking of which, the god of improbable friendships raised a hand to his throat, a soft green light glimmering between his fingers. After about half a minute of this, he said first Nebula's name, then Tony's, both out loud, and in a voice that was maybe a little deeper, definitely somewhat raspier (in a sexy kind of way) but otherwise pure Loki.

Tony realized it might not be the smartest thing to apply the words "in a sexy kind of way," to someone who not only was an alien, but had only lately become his friend, especially when his new alien pal had been his sworn enemy only a few years back.

Then he considered what Nebula had revealed to him about Thanos, the Chitauri caverns, and how long Loki took to break. He couldn't (and didn't want to) imagine the horrible shit it must have taken to destroy and remake someone like Loki, to open up that clever, stubborn brain and take away its owner's free will, before spitting him out into the world, ready to obey his master's orders.

Just skirting around the edges of that thought made Tony feel protective and also a little bit sick.

"Are you really all right, Loki? Seriously."

"Somewhat shocked..."

"Understatment."

"Otherwise, never better, surprisingly." Loki gave a soft laugh. "Usually my brother's embraces, though overly enthusiastic, tend to be somewhat less dramatic. Were you alarmed?"

"Uh, yeah. Understatement number two. What the hell happened?"

"I need to, quite soon and in private, to speak with Thor."

I can imagine, Tony thought. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the thunder god looking close to tears.

Loki, on the other hand, appeared completely dry-eyed.

"After, Tony," he went on in an undertone, "I'll gladly tell you what I've managed to puzzle out."

"That's not going to happen," Steve said, as if he still had moral authority, and none of the shit that had happened with him had ever happened.

It came to Tony that he trusted Cap--just not in a super trusting way.

"Ready to get up?" he asked Loki.

"Much as I love sitting here in a mountain of glass, yes. If you please."

With Nebula's help, Tony hoisted him to his feet. Afterwards, though, Loki stood on his own, with that same poised and straight-backed posture he'd noticed (correction--admired) back on Nebula's dead-bird-in-space spaceship.

He then brushed the glass glitter off his shoulders, and swanned over to the conference table.

The god of keeping things chill while annoying certain Avengers took a chair near the end without bothering to ask, looked around at the assembled company, and placed his elbows on the arm rests, steepling his long blue fingers in front of him. How he managed to look so princely, and at the same time so completely casual, would probably remain a mystery for all time.

At a nod and a mini-smile from Loki, Tony lowered himself into the next chair over, while Thor half fell into one across the table, promptly lowering his head into his large, scarred hands. 

Nebula, meanwhile, didn't sit, only lurked somewhere behind in the shadows, looking predatory.

"What would you like to discuss?" Loki began, then, when when no one responded, continued blithely, "I do apologize for the state of your headquarters. Please rest assured that the damage to your..." He glanced around the room, eyebrows raised "...Charming new base of operations and, of course, its many windows, was entirely unplanned. I'd certainly offer to reimburse you, if I didn't expect to be incarcerated shortly."

With perfect aplomb (Tony wasn't quite clear on the exact meaning of "aplomb," but whatever it was, Loki definitely possessed it), he separated his hands, holding them out directly in front of him.

On cue, Natasha snapped on a pair of bell-shaped Asgardian-style restraints. The ones with supposed magic-quelling properties.

Thor made a kind of growling sound deep in his throat.

"Give us any trouble and we add the muzzle," Steve threatened, is his best, stern, Captain America voice. 

"Fully understood." Loki's grin displayed definite "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good" properties. "Trouble. Muzzle. Isn't that's what referred to as an oblique, or slant rhyme?"

"We're not here to discuss poetry, Mr. Odinson."

It should be a rule, Tony thought. Any time you have to say "We're not here to discuss poetry" when you're trying to be threatening, you've already lost control of the situation.

"Until only recently, I would not have accepted that name. Now..." Loki's smile shifted to something Tony had never seen during the god's last visit to Midgard... uh... Earth, sassy, but with real warmth underneath.

Which pretty much described the Loki of recent days to a T.

"And so, Odinson, Laufeyson, I'll now answer to either, and so, Captain and assembled company, please feel free to use whichever you please. I'm not particular." In a quieter voice, he addressed a few comforting words to his brother, spoken in their native tongue.

Thor, still looking teary, answered, sounding miserable, then asked a couple questions of his own, which Loki answered in the same soothing voice.

"Last time you weren't blue," Natasha said, interrupting the conversation.

"Please forgive me for speaking in a language you can't comprehend," Loki said, letting her statement pass him by completely. "I understand it's considered rude by many, and I don't wish to seem unmannerly."

"Last time you also called me a 'mewling quim.' That was pretty unmannerly." Natasha's face, as usual, showed nothing she didn't want it to show, but Tony could tell she wasn't exactly pleased, either with the god of unwanted drop-in guests, or with anything about the situation.

"Again, I pray your forgiveness. That was indeed extremely rude." Loki straightened, scooting his chair closer to the conference table, resting his cuffed hands on the just-as-dismally-gray-as-the-walls tabletop. "I had my reasons, but I also regret the need for personal insults."

"Last time you killed humans," Steve said. "You wrecked our city. In Stuttgart, you murdered Doctor Schafer in cold blood."

"Not that it excuses the act." Loki leaned forward, eyes glittering. "But Herr Doktor Schafer was not the sole guardian of Iridium in all of Midgard."

"He was chosen specially!" Clint blurted out.

Loki blinked twice at the archer's new haircut, which was... something.

Something like the unholy offspring of a mohawk and a dead-but-somehow-also-overgrown hedge. As haircuts went, it epitomized "what were you thinking?"

When Loki spoke again, though, his voice was nothing but kind, whatever he might have thought of Clint's new 'do. "I am heartily sorry, Clinton, for the loss of your family. I know the affection you felt for them."

"Not affection. Love," Clint growled. "I loved them."

Loki inclined his head slightly. "Then, again, please forgive my ignorance. Though I speak your English well enough, its nuances are now and then lost upon me. In our language the word I meant to use is tilbeiðslu. Brother, will you kindly translate?"

"Deepest love and respect," Thor mumbled to the gray formica.

"The need?" Bruce asked. Like Nebula, he'd also been lurking, though in a less predatory, more confused way. When Tony patted the empty chair next to him, his ScienceBro finally emerged from the shadows to take a seat of his own.

They all stared at him.

"What was the need? I mean, for being rude to Natasha. What did you expect to happen?"

Bruce, my bro, Tony thought, I kinda wondered the same thing.

"And then," Steve put in, "You'll tell us what you did to Thor."

"My brother caused no harm to me," Thor protested, still sounding desperately unhappy. "In truth, it was our father who did this." 

Chapter Text

"There's no need for you to pry into that subject," Loki said, two seconds after Thor revealed the Odin connection to their--literally--explosive reunion, somehow managing to keep his tone threatening, dismissive and pleasant all at the same time. "It's a family matter concerning only my brother and myself, and one we choose not to share at this particular time."

"You wrecked our clubhouse, man," Rhodey put in. "Forgive us if we have questions."

"Certainly," Loki answered graciously.

As if he didn't understand sarcasm. As if he wasn't literally the god of sarcasm. Tony had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing out loud.

Bruce, it seemed, misread his expression. He gripped Tony's forearm lightly, an even more worried than usual expression in his chronically worried-looking dark eyes. "Tone, are you all right?" he whispered.

"Peachy," Tony whispered back. "Have I got a fucking story to tell you!"

"Likewise."

It hit him first that his ScienceBro's eyes didn't actually look worried, after all, so much as they did deeply, deeply sad. He hated seeing his best friend looking that sad, but Bruce, after all, had been there to count the bodies.

For bodies, read piles of dust. And, well, maybe actual bodies, too.

Only he couldn't joke about that yet, not even to protect what most of those at that table probably thought of as his cold, selfish heart.

But there was the real joke, because although the "selfish" part might sometimes be a 50/50 proposition, his heart wasn't frozen at all. In fact, he had to provide it with extra protection because it was so fragile, so easily broken--and not just in a physical sense.

A sensation went through Tony then, warm and kind. Loki's shoulder bumped his, holding position for no more than a couple seconds, but long enough to tell him, I'm here.

Message received, Tony responded.

"Do you possess an appropriate cell?" the god of annoying Steve on a personal level asked cheerfully. "Suitably grim, with a properly punitive air? I assume you'll wish to enjoy a lengthy team argument before interrogating me further."

Smartass, Tony said.

The smartest! Loki answered in the same gleeful tone.

The other end of the table traded glances, of the "I was going to suggest that" "No, I was going to suggest that" variety.

Loki climbed to his feet--only climbed wasn't the right word. Maybe levitated would have been more accurate. The high-level Asgardian anti-magic restraints changed into mittens on his hands. Green and white mittens. With reindeer. And snowflakes.

The giant raccoon grinned, which was once of the most unsettling things Tony had seen in his entire life.

Loki pulled these mittens off, left, then right, laying them neatly on the table, while staring at Team Cap the whole time. "Anyone who likes them, of course, may have them. I understand New York becomes chilly in winter. Would someone like to escort me now? You may not trust Thor with the task, though my brother would almost certainly be the most likely to secure me, should securing be needed. Perhaps Clinton, with his exploding arrows? Colonel Rhodes with his armor?" He paused, eyes seeking out Scraps in her shadowy lurking-place.

"Also, please do accommodate Lady Nebula. She's done nothing to offend you, and has experienced a trying few days."

In the end the entire team served as escorts, Thor going along with a look of misery so complete it seemed to include all six-feet-whatever of his body, from the top of his cropped hair to his large, booted feet. The raccoon (aka "Sweet Rabbit"), appearing more interested in what might happen next than anything else, trailed the god of thunder.

Tony didn't follow. He had a visitor.

He wasn't sure who'd called Pepper. Rhodey, probably. Or maybe kind-hearted Bruce. One of the two looking out for him like the good guys they were. And Tony wanted to see her.  He did. He just maybe would have liked a lengthy shower, a change of clothes from the now stretched-out tank top and disreputable pants he'd been wearing for days, and maybe whatever food his ScienceBro allowed him, which would probably be about two ounces of some high-nutrition protein shake that tasted like vanilla chalk.

On the whole, he'd rather eat yak yogurt.

Tony wondered whether Loki would pronounce yogurt all British, like "yog-hurt" (or was it "yog-urt?"--he couldn't remember), and why Loki sounded 100% upper-crust English, while Thor sounded like a guy with a deep voice and a slightly awkward vocabulary. Loki, he knew, would never have called him "Man of Iron," except maybe ironically, or Coulson "Son of Coul."

He actually felt uncomfortable thinking of poor Agent and the god of having done unfortunate things while under the influence of evil at the same time, even having found out, from fairly reliable sources, that rumors of Phil's death might have been greatly exaggerated.

My cell is splendid, Loki said in Tony's head. Really impressively punitive. They've truly outdone themselves. The bed is a sort of metal shelf and, having learned nothing from the mitten incident, they plan to secure me to it with actual, medieval fetters. Who do you imagine manufactures medieval fetters in this day and age?

They use them in prisons, I guess.

Do they? They were popular in Asgard as well. I was given a truly splendid set upon my return.

Lok.

Hmn?

You don't have to do this, you know.

My apologies. A kind of mental sigh came from the god of trying to appear flippant about a demeaning and depressing situation. I feel entirely frustrated. I only wish to help, was brought back to help, I believe, and this is such an exercise in futility.

Give them a day, maybe, to get over the stupids?

Excellent advice, my friend. And now... Loki's tone sobered. Your Virginia has arrived, has she not?

Pepper? Yeah.

Why did you leave behind the mask, with your message to her, if it isn't too forward to ask? It has "always been her," has it not?

Uh... I forgot? About the mask, I mean, what with the ship shaking itself apart and all. By the way, if it even needs to be said, you, sir, are incorrigible.

Chaos-god, if you'll remember. I did mention.

That you did.

Go, then, and romance your lady. I give my word not to listen.

And how good is your word, generally speaking?

Utterly worthless, Loki answered cheerfully. Only not in this instance. You are my friend, and of all upon Midgard, have my respect. Contact me later, if you wish.

Count on it. I'm not gonna leave you there, languishing in irons.

A word to the wise--I'm not. I've substituted quite a comfortable mattress, and borrowed a book from your room. Later, I may nap. All the while providing a suitably heart-rending false image of myself for the delight of your Shield-brothers and sister . I wish I could inform Thor, but as he's clearly demonstrated...

Tony couldn't help but laugh. Yeah. Point taken.

Until later, Loki told him, and signed off.

Which left Tony with Pepper, who looked red-eyed and shattered standing alone there in the middle of the room.

He wrapped his arms around her, and told her he'd missed her, and that he loved her. Which he had, and he did. He just felt so... distant.

As distant as all the depths of space.


 After living through the single longest day of his life, with highlights including his heart-destroying reunion with Pepper (who he did love, he really did) and the Meeting of Never-Ending Hell, in which the discussion went around and around and around, getting nowhere, like a fairground carousel.

Tony had never been to a fairground, much less ridden on a carousel, but movies could be a good reference for learning about all sorts of things.

He finally insisted he was beat to shit, and absolutely, positively had to rest, at which point the others turned sympathetic, including Bruce, who first tried to give him at least a cursory medical exam, then, when that failed, served him, for the second time that day, the predicted two ounces of vanilla chalk.

Poor Bruce. When he'd attempted to do the same for Nebula, he'd barely avoided getting punched in a highly sensitive area. Tony advised him that in any future dealings with Scraps, Bruce might want to wear a cup.

Nebula had soup for dinner instead of vanilla chalk.

Not that, for fear of hurting Bruce's feelings, Tony called it that to his face.

He finally staggered to his assigned room, which never felt like home because it wasn't home, just a place to crash in situations like this one.

He unlocked and opened his boring gray-steel door only to find Loki just emerging  from the miniscule bathroom, towel-drying his hair and wearing literally the most splendid bathrobe Tony had ever seen, silky and embroidered and wafting attractively around Loki's legs.

"Your jaw has dropped," Loki said. "Would you kindly undrop it? The look upon your face makes me faintly nervous."

His fingers slid gently under Tony's chin, the thumb brushing his beard, and completed the action before Tony could manage to even think about getting his shit together.

"Did you wish to shower? The hot water ought to be more than sufficient. I find this body prefers it cold."

"I noticed you haven't lost the blue yet. Can you?"

"With no difficulty whatsoever. Should I?"

"Not on my account." Tony sleepwalked toward the bathroom door, knowing this couldn't be real, it had to be a dream. A really strange dream

He paused with his hand on the knob, groggy with exhaustion and wondering why they even had knobs, instead of cool Star Trek slidy doors. When he finally emerged again after his shower (Loki had been right about the water), feeling something approximating human, he found Loki lying on his back on the bed, reading a paperback copy of Dune.

"An oldie but a goodie," Tony said, "How do you like it?"

"Excellently well. The political machinations remind me of home."

"Which no longer exists. Thor said."

"Everyone has that one sibling," Loki responded, and slid a marker nearly as splendid as his bathrobe into the book. "Are you the one who dog-ears pages. I'd thought better of you, Tony."

"Maybe if I had a bookmark as fancy-schmancy as yours, I wouldn't."

Loki slipped the marker out from between the pages and offered it to Tony. Its design shifted to included the letters T and S. "Now you must accept my gift. It's personalized. I've provided a reasonable meal for you as well. Never fear to eat it. That's been sorted."

"'Sorted,' huh?" A tray with a silver lid occupied the nightstand, and under it was a fancier version of the meal Edwin Jarvis always provided when Tony was sad or sick as a kid--a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup.

Tony gave the god of unexpected comfort food a sideways look.

"Poor Lady Nebula. She was given tinned soup and no sandwich. I provided."

"Did you 'sort' her, too?"

"As a highly efficient cyborg, she required no sorting. She was engineered for harsher environments than Midgard."

"So, except for the Reading Hour and meal service, how have you spent your time?"

"Wasted my time would perhaps be more accurate." For a full minute, Loki's eyes held a furious, burning look to rival Nebula's, but then he relaxed. "I left behind an excellent simulacrum as a recreation of myself in uneasy sleep. I also, merely for my own amusement, turned the raccoon's fantastically large gun into a hringlaga hörpu."

"Which is, when it's on Midgard?"

"A lap harp, though with variations. I actually learned to play the hringlaga hörpu when I was a boy. Our mother, being Vanir, considered music lessons essential to a princely education, and I actually quite enjoyed mine."

"What did Thor play?"

"Thor? Surely you jest."

Loki laughed suddenly. "You were picturing a tuba. To see Thor play a tuba would certainly be amusing."

"And do you still play your harpo-thingy?"

"Eventually it was considered too argr, even for me. Magic was thought to be more beneficial to the good of the kingdom in general, though even that, however useful it might be, tended to be seen as one argr skill too many."

"And argr is?"

"Effeminate. Double-souled." Loki's mouth made a motion like he'd just tasted something bitter. "Queer, I suppose one might say amongst your people, in both the old and new senses of the word."

"Sucks," Tony said.

"Indeed." Loki rolled over, head propped on his hand, long jet-black hair spilling everywhere. "I could still play, if I wished to. I tend not to forget."

"But?"

"I don't understand your meaning."

"You were thinking, just then, of something you forgot. Something major. Maybe tied in with the Thor-and-Loki Lightshow?"

"You begin to read me with increasing skill." Loki raised his eyes, studying Tony's face. "Normally, I'd take that as a sign to push you away, creating a vast, unsurmountable distance between us."

"I'd rather you didn't do that," Tony told him. He reached out, brushing the soft, soft velvet on one of Loki's rapidly lengthening horns with a fingertip.

"Ah, Tony," answered the god of completely unexpected emotions .

Chapter Text

Tony surprised himself by waking up early-- before dawn, actually--considering he'd slept about fifteen minutes the night before.

Pepper likewise surprised him, by arriving unexpectedly for an early visit, the very sight of her causing guilt to shoot through Tony's chest like shrapnel, partly because he knew that, in a perfect world, he'd have spent the last night all alone with her in their large and ridiculously comfortable bed. They would have slept late, eaten breakfast holding hands on the terrace, kissed and laughed and maybe even reveled in the fact that they'd both lived to be together again.

All that seemed like something from an alternate universe, possibly even a dystopia, a reality where he didn't belong, and one that didn't belong to him.

Instead he'd chosen to sleep (or not sleep) in a grim room he didn't like, just to spend most of the night chatting with the god of mischief.

"You listen well," Loki had told him, sometime long, long after midnight.

"You are literally the first person in my entire life to say that," Tony answered.

Actually, he thought Loki was a decent listener too. For one thing, Tony rarely had to explain himself except, now and then, to clarify some obscure pop culture reference. For another, Loki had his own set of unfortunate cave and being-left-almost-dead-in-the-snow memories.

For this reason, maybe (and when he hadn't recently clunked his brainbox in a major way) Loki slept about as much as Tony did--a "much" that was way more like a "little."

"I don't hold it against Thor," Loki said, shaking his head. "He will forget things. It's in his nature."

"Including having it slip his mind that he'd brought his little brother to a battle?"

"Yes, that. Or the existence of such a species as Procyon lotor."

"'Sweet rabbit!'" Tony exclaimed. By this time he did a decent Thor impression.

They both laughed, in a quiet way. It wouldn't do to wake up anybody else.

"Tony." Loki's hand, his long blue fingers, circled Tony's bare ankle. His skin, as always, felt a little on the cool side, and also softer than human skin, for all the weapons-training he must have been put through in his long, long life. He didn't add any pressure, didn't grip, just maintained that odd, nearly weightless, yet also strangely comforting touch. "I'm perfectly happy to become an enemy of Captain Rogers on your behalf, and torment him in any number of petty, yet interesting, ways."

"Thanks," Tony said, kind of laugh-crying in a way that probably should have been embarrassing. Lack of sleep made him emotional. Or possibly, for a change, just being heard. "Maybe not?"

"And I'm sorry, also, to have brought you suffering."

"I think you've canceled that one out, what with the recent saving-from-certain-death."

Loki laughed again, in the same nearly soundless way. The corners of his eyes crinkled, something Tony found strangely charming--that Loki could be an ageless god and still have his face show smile-lines.

A series of odd impulses came over him, but Tony fought them down. Loki was his friend. His good-but-recent-friend. He'd chosen to make Pep his fiancee.

His choice. His commitment. His chance not to be a selfish shit for once in his life.

Tony looked up to find Loki gazing at him. At such times, the god of late-night conversations rarely blinked, which should have been freaky, but wasn't.

"At times, my mind fills up with 'ifs,'" Loki said. "If I'd believed myself any less a monster. If I hadn't let go of Gungnir--my father's spear, by the way, since for some mad reason we of Asgard have to give every single bedamned thing a name--and if I never fell. If I'd wished harder, in that one moment, to live. If my fall had carried me in some other direction than toward my own ruin. If my rage had been less, and my jealousy against my brother not so like a disease.

"If your dad hadn't come up with 'No, Loki' as the most appropriate thing to say when you were hurting and at your most vulnerable.

Loki shrugged. "It's the response of a king."

"It's the response of an insensitive asshole."

"Still," Loki went on, "I must wonder, did those events, put together, open a keyhole to Thanos, allowing him, with his Chitauri henchmens' aid, to turn the key that would unlock my mind?"

"Poetic," Tony said.

"We are not here to discuss poetry, Mr. Stark," Loki answered severely, in a flawless imitation of Steve-o's voice. At the same time he transformed the Robe of Splendor into Cap's old red, white and blue spangle suit.

Loki in the spangle suit, sprawled out on Tony's bed, equaled May the Gods Have Mercy! He tried not to stare, but failed miserably.

"You're distracting me, Lok. I'm distracted

"My apologies, then." The Robe of Splendor instantaneously reappeared.

"Please. No apologies needed. You were saying?"

"Only that I don't know. Perhaps I'll never know what might have been, in other circumstances. 'Remorse is the poison of life.'" He paused. "Charlotte Bronte."

Tony had to laugh--not at the first part, that made him hurt for his friend's pain, but at the ending. Only Loki.

"Looking on the bright side," Tony said, "And from my own selfish perspective, maybe it circles around again to that saving-from-certain-death thing?"

"Perhaps it does," Loki answered. He glanced up at Tony, and though his smile was warm, his eyes held something complicated, too complicated, maybe, for a mere mortal to attempt to interpret.

Soon after, Tony fell into his quarter hour of sleep. When he woke up again, Loki had gone, probably back to his faux-uncomfortable bed in his suitably punitive cell, slipping the completely ineffective medieval fetters onto his ankles and wrists.

Sometimes,Tony thought, the team lost, or nearly lost, because: A) there may not have an "I" in team, but there were a shitload of "I's" among the six (or more) of them; B) they had almost no loyalty to each other, only paired off in twos or threes, working at cross-purposes, forming frequently contradictory networks of who to fight and who to trust that ran all over everywhere; and, C) they never fucking learned. Not from past experience, not from each other.

Witness that they still thought, despite all evidence to the contrary, that locking up a sorcerer with a never-expiring "Get out of Jail Free" card, who'd already proven that he couldn't be held by anything they had on hand. Witness Loki strolling merrily free all around the compound.

From a friend standpoint, this made Tony happy. As an example of their HQ's excellent security, it sucked.

Tony got that the team, such as it was, had to still be stressed and grieving but, Jesus Christ, how clueless could they be? That kind of ineptitude was almost enough to make him miss Doctor Strange.

Tony totally didn't miss Doctor Strange.

Thinking of Strange, though, made him think of Peter Parker--"Oh, we're using our made-up names?"--and thinking of Peter Parker, young and naive and heroic, made Tony want to weep.

Unlike Loki, Tony had more "whys?" in his life than "ifs..." One of his whys, for example, being why, in the aftermath of nearly suffocating, did it seem like a good idea to go hunting for cigarettes?

For man is a fucking giddy thing, he thought as an excuse. Just like (minus the "fucking" part) on that Mumford and Sons album Bruce would play ad infinitum in the lab, until the sound of rampant banjos began to make Tony twitch.

He finally located a pack of cigarettes shoved in the very back of a kitchen drawer. It had packaging printed in Cyrillic, which seemed to indicate that those particular smokes were the deathiest of death sticks, and also that they'd almost certainly belonged to Clint Barton, SuperSpy, the other secret smoker of the group.

The same drawer conveniently held a book of matches, which meant Tony was in business.

He paused just inside the side door, wondering if he still remembered the key-code, and if he did, had that code been changed? They really needed to throw a thumbprint or a retina scanner on that thing, but probably hadn't for the reason that the door only led to the enclosed-on-all-sides courtyard, and who, having infiltrated Avengers HQ, would want to invade their picnic and smoking area?

The good news was, that not only did Tony manage to recall the numbers, but nothing had been changed since his last visit. Maybe a whole lot of stuff just didn't seem to matter in the aftermath of all that dust.

Tony took a seat on the still dew-damp bench where he could best watch the sunrise, and settled down to smoke and catch the orange and gold rays as they came up over the roof.

The best laid plans, as the saying went--though he'd swear to his dying day that what actually happened was a definite improvement.

Pepper found him there amidst the greensward (so to speak), and grinning like a fool.

"Sit down, Pep," he called out to her. "It's nearly dry. You've gotta see this!"

Pepper had the look of a woman seriously considering a return trip inside to grab a handful of paper towels. Since the dew hadn't really evaporated yet, the bench remained shiny with moisture, and she had on an elegant light-green dress with an immaculately-tailored color-coordinated coat. In her place, Tony probably would have gone for the towels; she didn't.

Never let it be said that Virginia "Pepper" Potts was timid about anything. That was one of the many traits he'd always loved and admired about her.

"You never said last night how you managed to make your way home," she said, then paused. "From space."

"Daring last-minute rescue. By Thor," Tony half-truthed. "Here, watch!"

When he passed her the book of matches, Pepper's look clearly expressed, You are a lunatic. She lit a match anyway, cupping the flame with her hand to stop the breeze from puffing it out.

Pepper held that little flame to the end of the cigarette until an ember kindled, her expression now fixed somewhere between sadness and Really, Stark? Really?

The match dropped to the ground when that ember erupted into a larger flame, and Pepper gasped when that fire transformed before her eyes into a black-and-orange butterfly nearly the size of her hand.

For a few seconds the butterfly fluttered over their heads, then caught a current of warmer air, riding it up and away, off into the light-filled sky.

“'You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated,'" Pepper said softly.

"Many see the butterfly as a symbol of hope," said Loki, from directly behind her. Pepper didn't even flinch.

"Did you enjoy them?" he added.

The god of splendid bathrobes had abandoned the white number from the night before, His current example was blue-black velvet, embroidered with constellations Tony didn't recognize.

You look like fucking Count Dracula, Tony thought at him, Francis Ford Coppola version.

Loki appeared to take this as a compliment. He also took Pepper's hand, and bowed low over it. "I am Sven Odinson, and you must be the intelligent and beauteous Lady Virginia, of whom I have heard much."

"Thor's brother," Tony added dryly. Excellent imitation, by the way.

"Half-brother," Loki fake-splained. "Different mothers."

"Sven was just about to make breakfast." Tony shot Loki a look. "And get dressed."

Before Cap and Co. catch you up and about, he added.

"There once was a boy named Pierre who always said 'I don't care,'" Loki responded--but he also went, leaving Tony and Pepper alone.

"'Sven,' huh?" Pepper asked, watching the hem of splendid robe #2 whisk out sight behind the partially-open door. "I wasn't aware Thor had a second brother. I always heard 'Thor's fucking brother,' not 'Thor's fucking brother and his other, lovely blue brother who also does magic.'"

"Half-brother," Tony said faintly. "Yeah, Sven's a charmer."

"Apparently." Pepper studied his face, no anger in her expression, only kindness. The colors of the rising sun turned her golden hair into something like a halo.

Appropriate, Tony thought, because she really was something of a saint, the way she put up with him, and also because he did love her, he always had.

Just not in the right ways, or enough.

He'd also put her, over the years, through all kinds of shit.

Pepper took Tony's hand between both of her own. "Because I couldn't know if you were alive, I mourned you like one of the dead."

"God, Pep..." He also didn't know how to say "sorry." There weren't enough words.

"I'm glad that that's not the case," she said. "Be careful, won't you? With your heart as well."

Pepper stood, lovely in every way, and gazed down on Tony, the sun still bright behind her.

His Pepper, so smart and brave, funny and fierce and beautiful.

His Pepper, never his again. 

"You know me," Tony said softly.

"I do." A hint of a smile touched her mouth. "You better be damn glad I never booked the venue."

"How...?" Tony felt fairly sure the dust and glass shards had come back into his throat, and that all the Space Fanta in the Universe would never wash them away.

"How did I know? Tony, you looked at him and your eyes came alive. Finally, completely alive. I haven't seen that, not really, since you came home from Siberia."

"You're not wrong," Tony told her.

"Can he help you?" Pepper asked. "Can you fix the world, and make things right again?"

"We can try," he answered. "We'll do the best we can do."

"'Do. Or do not. There is no try,'" Pepper told him. Not unexpectedly, her Yoda impression was execrable.

"I love you, Pep," Tony said. "For reals."

"I love you too, Tony," she said, and walked away.

Chapter Text

When Tony returned inside, he found an anonymous helper-elf had cleaned up the mountains of broken glass and put sheets of something sturdy over the sad, empty window-holes. He also discovered Loki, Thor and Nebula clustered around one end of the conference table, and stood watching them in silence as they enjoyed their coffee and a large stack of toast.

Thor would have been behind both, he guessed, because the thunder god loved the 4-slice toaster nearly as much as he loved the coffee-maker. What it was with the Asgardian prince and small kitchen appliances, Tony might never know, but Loki could possibly share some insights. Maybe his brother liked to commune with the electricity or something.

After a moment or two, Tony had to correct his original observation: Thor and Loki seemed to appreciate their coffee (beverage of the gods!) almost too much; Scraps took one sip and developed instant Mr. Yuk face. Cyborg Tiggers, it appeared, did not like bitter caffeinated beverages.

The very minute the Mr. Yuk face appeared, though, Nebula's cup of coffee disappeared, to be replaced by a tall glass of orange juice. Thank you, god of giving the non-people what they haven't even asked for yet, because they didn't know what they wanted.

Scraps did appear to approve of the o.j., because she gulped down the whole half-liter without taking time out to breathe, then held out her glass for a refill.

They're not really non-people, Tony reminded himself, They're just non-human people. The whole thing struck him strangely, because on the whole, Thor seemed less alien than, say, The Hulk. The thing with the lightning (not to mention the Hammer of Worthiness) was weird, sure, but no weirder than the random shit Wanda Maximoff did. Compared to that, Thor just seemed like a human guy from some distant country, like Iceland (where lots of guys named Thor lived), or Australia, where give the guy a surfboard and he'd fit right in (only don't mix Thor's lightning with the water, or he'd fry half the Great Barrier Reef).

Sitting there with their heads close together, all three of them did look alien, somehow, but also like one of those tight little groups of relatives in which there's plenty of love, but no over-arching family resemblance (in this case, two blue ones, and two tall ones, but Nebula was bald like Uncle Ned, and only Loki inherited Nana Cecily's beautiful horns). It seemed, in fact, as if Scraps had been unofficially adopted, for a second time, by the Odinson Brothers, and since those brothers, for all their differences, now appeared to be fully at peace with each other, maybe that would give her another chance, this time with kinder and less emotionally-destructive relations. 

Did entering that little family make Nebula an Odinson Sister or an Odindaughter? Again, he'd have to ask Loki.

Tony didn't think they'd noticed him, and so he went by without speaking, intending to get to his assigned space, lie down and feel sad for (hopefully) a little while, maybe even catch a few more minutes of shuteye before he had to face the day and whatever shit it decided to drop on him.

He reached his room, only to find Loki already seated at the end of the mattress. He had on what looked like one of Clint's all-black spy-suits, complete with combat boots. In a "Who Wore It Better?" competition, Loki would win, hands down.

"This actually is one of Clinton's," Loki said. "I appropriated it from his room while he slept and altered the fit appropriately. He owns a surprisingly large number of these garments, all perfectly identical. He also possesses unexpectedly large feet."

"God of mischief gotta mischief, I guess," Tony said. "Does Clint have a spare pair of boots?"

"Perhaps." Loki grinned. "Possibly."

"You know, Lok, if Clint has to leave his room wearing white Nikes, it will completely make my day."

Loki's grin turned, briefly, slightly more evil. "I've also greatly improved the comfort of your mattress, while commensurately decreasing that of Captain Rogers's."

"He won't even notice. SuperSoldier, after all."

"And yet the change gives me satisfaction. However..." His eyes sought Tony's face, not dancing with mischief this time, but kind. "I didn't come here this morning to engage in banter."

"Yeah?"

Loki pressed his hand to the bed, in the empty space right beside him. His gaze, this time, met Tony's, still filled with kindness, but also with an invitation.

"I'm not always a complete... er... 'smartass,' you know."

"I know," Tony answered. "I do know. You've already proved that, Lok."

"Then?" Loki patted the bed.

Tony looked into Loki's eyes, realizing in that moment why exactly they seemed so intense--you could fall into those eyes the way you'd fall into black holes, to be caught by their gravitational pull and never come out again. He wondered if that was why Loki seemed jovial, even flippant sometimes, but underneath that, so restrained.

"Don't worry," Loki said softly, "I would never trap you. I swear upon the flame of my mother's burning."

Tony had no idea in hell what that meant, only that his friend took the vow seriously, and so would he.

He sat close, the way Loki indicated, not sure that he wanted sympathy, or comfort, or even to talk beyond the most superficial of conversations. But he still sat, because it felt good to be near the god of actually caring about Anthony E. Stark. Their shoulders touched, and when Loki's mind brushed against his, all Tony felt was calm, stillness, acceptance.

He hadn't known Loki even had that gear to shift into.

After a little while, Loki reached out to take Tony's hand, holding it between both of his own, reminding him of Pepper, only not, because, even in the middle of the trauma and loss, a world remade into tragedy, it felt like a beginning, not the ending that exact same gesture had meant with Pep.

A few minutes later and Tony shifted slightly closer, laying his head on Loki's shoulder, half afraid to fully relax into that comfort out of fear that the god would pull away, or deliver one of his sardonic grins, or otherwise reject him. He felt like he was trying to find his way across a huge expanse of quicksand, all the stepping-stones that would hold him up safely half-submerged, nearly impossible to see.

"You are a ridiculous man," Loki told him, in a voice more tender than Tony had ever heard from another person--at least when used toward him. Usually people met his snark with snark and, often with reason, saw nothing in himbut sharp edges and sarcasm. He even sparked that reaction with Bruce now and then. Bruce whose issues had nearly destroyed him, and whose default was set, most of the time, at "self-doubt and bemusement," because The Other Guy took up almost everything Tony's BFF might have otherwise used to be decisive, or to protect himself.

"Clearly, the solution," Loki went on, "Is to only love those who can literally read your mind."

"Clearly," Tony answered, doing that laugh-cry thing again, because he'd loved Pepper, and he couldn't help but feel like he'd messed up with her, even if that wasn't why she'd left him.

She left because she had loved him, and because she'd loved him, wanted to see him live--really live--again.

Loki dried the cry part of Tony's laugh-cry with his cool, smooth fingers, then wrapped him up in both arms, holding him close.

He didn't Ssh... Tony, or give him an empty "there, there." He didn't say much of anything, really, just held him in those powerful, slim arms, the better part of their power restrained for that moment, letting Tony sob, then weep, then just lie against him feeling quietly miserable, but also protected, and cared for.

That was, until Steve burst through the door, calling out, in his best "We have a crisis!" voice, "Tony, Loki's escaped!"

Loki had pulled away from him seconds before the door thumped back against the wall, and Tony felt fairly sure he was currently grinning like a fiend. He could probably also read in Cap's thoughts, Is this a hostage situation? If not, why is Loki sitting on Tony's bed?

Because, of course, any decent god of mischief would grin at that, wouldn't he? The situation practically required it.

Tony felt equally sure that he himself looked red-eyed, strung out, and teary. Maybe that made him answer Cap's panic-mode (not that Steve ever really, really panicked) more harshly than he'd intended, "Thank you, Captain Obvious. He's only been meandering around the compound at will for the past twenty-four hours. Check the damn surveillance."

Which wasn't strictly true. A lot of those hours had been spent right there in Tony's room.

"Tony, I won't be seen on those," Loki put in, as if Tony had said something monumentally silly, but he still wished to be kind.

Because, duh, the god of mischief would only leave behind evidence if he chose to leave behind evidence. Again, Tony kept forgetting the whole "god" part, maybe because in many ways--like his brother, and powers aside--Loki often seemed so human.

His response to Steve certainly sounded much more reasonable than Tony's had been. "Excuse me for departing from both my cell and your security protocols, Captain Rogers, but you must realize that your team, with far stronger facilities available to them, wasn't able to hold me during my last visit, when I was weaker than I've been at any time in my adult life."

Steve blinked at that one. Maybe he was thinking back to all the general mayhem, and the way they, the Hulk aside, had nearly been flattened like so many hero pancakes.

Which begged the question, why had Loki let himself get Hulk-whomped into the floor, anyway? He'd seen Loki's blink-or-you'll-miss-it reflexes. Hell, the guy could catch an arrow flying toward his head at full speed, for god's sake, and that, if what he'd just told Steve was true, had been Loki at his slowest and creakiest. He could teleport, he could make faux-Lokis, he was one damn resourceful ancient god of the Northmen, and he'd just shown them that even the Asgard-made, supposedly anti-magic restraints, might as well have been warm woolen mittens.

So why? What made him go in that direction?

"This time," Loki went on, in the same pleasant voice, "I've gained immeasurably in power, and the stakes are as high as they could possibly be. You may not wish to include me in your battle but if you, as you claim, truly want to defeat the Mad Titan, you can't afford to ignore the advantage I'd provide to you and your allies. You have no one like me, and without me, there can be no victory."

"You lie," Steve answered, "And we beat you last time."

"Would you like to know why? I'd love to explain." Loki rose to his feet and--employing that smooth pantherish walk of his, the one that promised that, whether you put up a fight or not, you should prepare to lose your head in under five seconds--approached Steve, gazing down on the tall, muscular Super Soldier, looking taller (which he was, by several inches) and infinitely more powerful, despite his lighter build.

"It's a story I'd prefer to tell only once, however," Loki said. "If you would summon your compatriots? Or I could, if you wish."

By the time Steve so much as tapped his com-link, doors began to open up and down the hall. Clint did indeed cross the threshold wearing Nikes, but before the archer could close his door behind him, they'd already shifted into his usual black combat boots.

I'd thought of using another color. Fuchsia, perhaps? But it may be that Clinton has suffered enough.

For being rude to you, or...? Tony responded.

In general, because his losses were grave, and I can be merciful, when I choose.

God-complex, Tony said, in the most somber tone he could muster, and in a bad, fake-German accent.

Loki laughed inside his head.

Natasha, who slept in the room next to Tony's gave him a significant look. Maybe he had a funny expression on his face.

Maybe she heard us speaking in the night? Loki said.

Which meant that Nat, with her super-sharp spy ears, had overheard every word.

 

By the time everyone arranged themselves around the conference table yet again, Thor (who really did seem to feel about kitchen appliances the same way Arthur Weasley felt about Muggles) had the coffee brewed and ready. In consideration for Nebula, a carafe of orange juice also appeared, along with a tray of still-warm bagels.

That was New York for you. End of the world? Of course we still have bagels!

Refreshments served, butts in seats, Tony noticed that they'd continued to arrange themselves pretty much into two distinct groups: Team Steve (Clint and Natasha) and Team Tony (Bruce, Rhodey, Nebula and the Brothers Odinson). The giant raccoon, neutral like Switzerland, took the middle seat on the far side of the table, obviously wanting his back to the wall. Clearly, this was one Procyon lotor who (unlike Switzerland) had been in more than a few fire-fights.

Tony tried his best not to look at the other side and think, Ha! I win!

That would be a shitty thought, even for him, especially in the total absence of James "Bucky" Barnes, the unwitting catalyst to why the team had split into separate, often hostile, pieces in the first place. Thor appeared to have noticed the same thing, at the same time (also, apparently, for the first time) and looked tragic.

Only we aren't about that anymore, Tony reminded himself. We can't be. Not now. Maybe if the fates are kind and the world gets stuck back together again, but not now.

"Hey," he said, trying to exclude all these thoughts from showing on his face or in his voice, trying to keep it all as friendly as he could manage--if Cap wouldn't do it, Tony could at least try. "Maybe everyone should scootch over a little? We're looking kinda bunched up at the ends here."

Somewhat to his surprise, everyone did move. A little. At least enough not to elbow each other in the gut as they attempted to nom on the bagels.

"To start..." Steve began.

"No, start with this." The raccoon (Tony had some vague recollection that his name might be Rocket--something space-related, anyway) plunked a small but beautifully-carved harp onto the tabletop. It let out a few bars of The Beatles "Rocky Raccoon," fell silent, then, with a small "pop!" turned into a gun again.

"Oh. Okay," the raccoon said, and tucked his oversized weapon away, out of sight but within easy reach under the table.

"Is that it, Rocket?" Steve asked, in his best patient-but-not-really voice.

"Sure. Guess so." The raccoon grinned one of his unnerving grins. "Go ahead, buddy."

Tony seriously doubted that anyone had called Steve "buddy" since WWII.

"Anyway, to start with..." Steve tried a second time, "Loki, tell us now. Why should we trust you?" 

Chapter Text

"After I fell..." Loki began, in exactly his usual voice--low-pitched, almost silky-smooth, and with only the tiniest trace of a rasp left from his pre-slamming-into-the-wall-of-Nebula's-dead-ship adventures.

His body, with its straight back and squared shoulders, conveyed pretty much the same message: I am relaxed in your presence; I am fearless; I could not be more confident.

No problem. Just another meeting out of thousands. I've totally got this.

Not that Loki, with his impressive vocabulary and precise grammar, would ever say, "I've totally got this."

Underneath that, Loki's real state of mind read as... well... pretty much whatever adjectives described the total opposite. The god of concealing his inner feelings may not have been King of Asgard, but no one could argue that he wasn't the King of Putting on a Really Convincing Show.

Tony reminded himself never to play poker with Loki. Ever.

"After I fell from..." Something awful surged inside the god's head, a mixture of rage/grief/shame/confusion/ terror.

Naturally, the only external signs of that internal mess were that Loki took a careful breath and laid both hands flat on the table.

"From the Bifrost," Thor put in helpfully. "The Rainbow Bridge, only not that upon which all the hundar of one's past are said to wait, and which therefore must be located within the environs of Valhalla, home of the valiant slain."

"Anyone..." Steve cleared his throat. "Care to translate?"

It fascinated Tony, sometimes, the contrast Thor provided more or less 24/7: the warrior, wise king, loving brother and cosmic traveler that existed side-by-side with the small appliance afficianado, maker of sneaky little jokes that you didn't even recognize as funny until you started laughing and, now, firm believer in not just doggy heaven, but doggy Valhalla.

In recent days, Tony had to admit that he found Thor about 100 times more likable than he had in the past. Maybe it was fact that, thanks to the god of thunder, he hadn't died mostly alone in deep space. Maybe it was that Loki had called and Thor came running, no (or very few) questions asked.

"The Bifrost," Tony said, "Is the Einstein-Rosen Bridge the Asgardians use to travel to other parts of space. Hundar are dogs. Other than that..." he (partially) lied, "I got nothin'."

"My kids had that book. The Rainbow Bridge," Clint spoke up, his voice deeper than usual with what Tony guessed must be tightly-controlled emotion. "Laura bought it for them, after Lucky died. That's what it's called. The place where you meet the good dogs. When you..." His voice tried to crack, but he controlled that too. "When you're gone."

The archer glared at Loki, narrow-eyed. "You can stay out of my head. I don't want either your issues or your fucking sympathy."

Loki turned his face away. Tony noticed tiny tremors, barely observable, run through his left hand, and his left hand only. "Apologies," he said, almost too softly to hear.

"Loki fell between the roots of Yggdrasil," Thor put in helpfully. "Into the darkness where Níðhöggr..."

"...The dragon that gnaws eternally on the roots of the world tree," Steve cut in, in the same patient-not-patient voice he'd used with the raccoon. "Yes, Thor, we've heard the particulars of your... uh... religion."

"As I have heard yours, Captain, and with more tolerance for your beliefs than you show toward mine," Thor rumbled back.

Ooh, sick burn! Tony thought. Go Thor!

"Furthermore, it is the cosmography  of my people you reference, and not our greater faith. Are we now required to view the vastness of the Universe as you, in your youth and inexperience, view it? My years are ten-and-fivefold to yours, my brother's tenfold."

Whoa, Thor really is the big brother! Tony couldn't help but think, because of course his brain could absolutely be counted on to deliver something inappropriate, even at the most somber of moments.

"Loki speaks of skelfilegur atburður, of dire events of the sort that shatter minds and hearts," Thor went on, in full King of Asgard mode. "Know this, mortal man, teammate though you be, treat my brother with respect, lest Stormbreaker taste of your blood."

Both Thor's fists rested on the table, the muscles of his forearms rising beneath his skin like the cables that hold up suspension bridges. 

"Brother, there's no need." Loki laid his hand over the nearest of those fists, drawing Thor's attention to himself. Unlike Clint's, Loki's rigid-control voice sounded just like his normal voice, still silky and persuasive, only with about 70% less snark. "I've injured these people and their Realm, and I must answer. Only then may they decide whether circumstance excuses my actions."

"As was said, I fell. I might have allowed Thor to pull me up," the god of painful memories went on, with deceptive calm. "He could easily have done so. Instead I looked into his face and felt within my heart only confusion and rage, betrayal and rejection. If I was not of them, my family and my race, what was I? Only a monster born out of darkness and ice, clothed temporarily in Aesir skin. The one I'd believed to be my father had no words of reassurance or acceptance for me, I'd fought with my brother, and in that instant I simply wanted not to be, and so I let go.

"I fell for what seemed a lifetime, through darkness, deep into what we call the roots of the World Tree, which is not space as you understand it, but those covert spaces that lie between the Realms. Another would have died, but I did not. Perhaps it is not in my nature to die in such places, or through such a fall, though in the days and months that followed, I came to wish with my whole heart that had not been the case." 

Loki pulled his hand back from his brother's, lacing his fingers together in front of him. Still. Relaxed. Completely closed off from the rest of them.

"I hadn't known that anything moved through those depths. I was mistaken. They found me." Loki's eyes closed briefly, then opened again, no longer looking at anything or anyone--except maybe what he'd seen then, in that terrible moment, the Chitauri with their too-long arms, with slimy gray skin that somehow managed to look less like skin in the ordinary sense, and more like the membrane that might lie beneath it, faceless in their nightmare-worthy helmets.

"They carried me, these Chitauri, grievously injured, and raving, deep into the caverns where they dwelt, bringing me before a robed being with skeletal hands--their leader, named by them 'The Other.' There they healed me, though only enough to preserve life within my body, then broke and healed me again, never enough to make me well, only enough to keep me alive. How many times in a year? A hundred? A thousand? I was given no food, for though I can't starve as a mortal starves, lack of food takes away strength, ambition, clear thinking, hope. Sleep likewise, for again, I wouldn't die from its lack, but constant wakefulness wears away at courage and spirit. The Chitauri, skilled in these... arts, made it their object to break me entirely, in body, mind and spirit. The Lady Nebula is able to attest to this."

Scraps gave an abrupt little nod. "I can. I will."

"How?" Natasha asked abruptly. "How could you possibly know that?"

"Because Thanos, my not-father, brought me to those caverns. The Chitauri, and most especially their leader, were his agents, he their master. He wanted to show off to me, his not-daughter, the workings of his grand project. I suppose there was a warning to me, as well--'See, Nebula, how even a god may be broken, should I choose?'"

"When nearly every good impulse I had, or might ever have had," Loki continued, "Had been driven into hiding, and every unsuitable impulse--vanity, ambition, a desire to show myself superior--was honed sharp and bright. When I had been 'gifted' with a scepter that would control me as much as those I chose to control, The Other told me this: 'You will have your war, Asgardian. If you fail, if the Tesseract is kept from us, there will be no realm, no barren moon, no crevice, where he cannot find you. You think you know pain? He will make you long for something sweet as pain...'" Loki stopped, breathed, looked from face to face around the table.

"I suppose, in the end it doesn't matter how I was controlled, or what was said, or what drove me. Neither can it matter how I chose to express the mere glimmerings of free will I still possessed. I am a monster, and monsters may only be seen as monstrous. Clinton may be forgiven. Dr. Selvig may be forgiven. I may not."

"Let me play you a sad, sad song on the world's smallest violin," Clint put in.

"But you know," Loki answered. "You know. If I saw you, the heart of your heart, you saw mine as well. You must know how I fought to break my binding."

Clint climbed to his feet and exited through the side door, letting it slam dramatically behind him.

Loki met Natasha's eyes. "The blow you dealt him returned your compatriot to his senses. None of you, except perhaps my brother, who might well be counted on to refuse, could strike me to equal effect. If you could not, and Thor would not, and I couldn't, at any event, reveal myself, what resource was left to me? Only to set a train of events into motion that began with speaking in a reprehensible manner to you, Agent Romanov, and leading afterward, step by step, to the release of your other self, Dr. Banner."

"Who walloped you into next week," Tony said. "And that broke the spell?"

"It wasn't a spell," Loki answered, his head bowed now, long, loose hair swinging forward to veil his face. "But yes."

"At which point...?"

"At which point, bound and muzzled, weaker than at any time in my life, I could explain nothing. In Asgard, even unbound, there would be, still, no ear willing to hear my explanations. Loki Silvertongue. Loki, god of lies--who would believe him? If it had not been expedient, if a use for my... skills had not been found, I might have lived out my life in the dungeons. Having found a way to side-step that fate, I had no intention, ever, of returning to it."

Loki turned toward Thor. "I'm sorry that you grieved, brother. I didn't think you would."

"There were other things you did, though," said Steve, at his absolute Cappiest. "The portal?"

"Of the smallest size I believed I could get away with and not be seen as betraying my Master, thereby slowing what might have been a flood to a trickle, giving all of you a chance to respond and to rescue. Believe this: the invasion could not have been avoided. It would be. It might also have proved far worse than it was."

"Okay, then," Rhodey put in. "What about the guy? The doctor? In Germany."

"Compare his..." Loki's hand made a circular motion; at the same moment an unusually decorative depiction of a DNA double helix popped up in Tony's brain.

"Compare his DNA?"

Loki nodded. He looked brutally tired, and it wasn't even ten A.M.

"Against other files, in his homeland and elsewhere. You'll discover, I believe, that Herr Doktor Schafer was by no means an honorable man. By ending his life, I saved others. I could do no more." Loki pressed the tips of his fingers hard against his closed eyelids. "I could do no more, but likely you, who've experienced none of this, believe you might do better. Perhaps you would. How am I to know?"

With those words, Loki disappeared.

"Lockdown!" Steve shouted to the automated security systems.

"Put a sock in it, Cap," Tony muttered. He felt tired too--first because his fellow Midgardians continued, always, to be species-centric as fuck. For another, Loki had opened up, revealed all that shame and pain, and all for nothing.

Tony hated humans sometimes.

  

Tony knew exactly where to look for his god of not-lying-but-still-not-being-believed. He'd have been beyond happy if he'd known he could find Loki in his own room, grim as that room might be.

Unfortunately, he knew that wouldn't be the case.

He tapped his comlink. "Steve, or one of you. Let me into the cell."

Steve didn't show up. Natasha did.

"For the record," Tony told her. "I hate all of you."

"Clint's really upset."

"Don't fucking care. You think Nebula would lie? Why? Because of her long-standing personal relationship with Loki? And don't say 'mind control,' I beg of you."

"People lie. It's what they do." Natasha glanced at Tony, eyes narrowed.

"You may or may not have noticed, but Nebs isn't exactly human."

"She is Thanos's daughter."

"You're smarter than this, Natasha. Leave it to Steve to deny anything that messes with his worldview. That's his specialty, not yours."

Natasha let the machine scan her retina, which Tony guessed was at least something. He left her in the corridor and didn't look back.

For the real record, Tony didn't hate them. He wanted the last few years not to have happened. He wanted them to be his friends again. He just didn't know when, or how, that could possibly take place.

Tony found Loki sitting on the metal shelf of pointless punishment, which had ceased to be a cushy mattress and regained its metal shelfiness. It hurt his heart more than a little to see the god of undeserved misery all slumped over, with his hair hiding most of his face and his hands dangling limply between his parted knees.

Tony grabbed one of those hands and gave it a tug. "C'mon. Up you get."

To his partial surprise, Loki didn't resist, just glided up to his feet in that way he had, like he didn't need to go through the normal preliminary step of straightening out parts of his skeleton.

"That's it. Now, walk this way."

"Yes, Igor."

Loki constantly surprised him. He even pronounced the name right, eye-gor instead of the more traditional ee-gor.

"Big Mel Brooks fan, Lok? When and where did you manage to see Young Frankenstein?"

"That film was amusing," Loki replied faintly.

Which was something. At least Tony had him talking. And following.

"I can't speak to them again. Those others." Loki paused. "Not yet."

"Not in any way my intention." Tony opened the door to his own room. "Boots off. Lie down."

"I am perfectly able to survive months without sleep."

"'Survive' is one thing. This is another. Boots off."

Tony didn't see exactly what Loki did to get there, only that the boots suddenly stood, neatly lined up, near the foot of the bed.

"Nice. Now lie."

Again, partially to Tony's surprise, Loki did, knees partially bent and face to the wall.

"Okay. Prime little spoon position."

"I fail to see how I can be..." Loki's voice was muffled by hair and pillow, but still clear enough. "A utensil."

"Like this." Tony lay down behind him, knees behind Loki's knees, belly against his back. He gently brushed aside the god's crazy fall of hair to kiss the nape of his neck, then wrapped an arm around Loki's middle, pulling him even closer. "Now you're the little spoon and I'm the big spoon."

"Again, I fail to see..." Loki stopped himself, laughing quietly. "Ah, yes, I do see. Based upon the position of two spoons, one upon another, in a Midgardian drawer."

Midgardian drawer? Tony had to wonder. What the hell do you people do with your spoons? Do you even have spoons?

"That's my god of mastering nonsensical Midgardian expressions. You are totally not a monster, by the way. I don't big-spoon monsters."

Loki didn't say anything. Tony listened to him breathe. If breathing could sound miserable, Loki's did.

"You're tired," Tony said softly, after a bit. "You've had a lifetime of this shit, and you're tired."

"I'm tired," Loki admitted. A big, fluffy duvet--definitely not the one the bed came with--floated down to cover them both.

"Then rest," Tony said, and kissed his shoulder. "You're safe here with me."

Chapter Text

Tony nearly drifted off to sleep, cuddled up against Loki beneath the big, fluffy comforter, atop his magically-enhanced mattress. He couldn't ever remember being more comfortable, despite his special little spoon's undeniable boniness here and there.

Despite their slightly humorous height differences, impossible-to-consider age differences, and having been born on entirely different worlds, they fit. They just did. To quote that philosopher and sage of way, way before his time, Mortimer Snerd, "Who'd a thunk it."

Tony snuggled closer. When he pressed his face against Loki's back, the warmth of his crazy, amazing hair (practically a separate being in its own right) engulfed him like a second blanket, and the scent of it reminded him of a ski lodge, of evergreens and ice crystals and wood fires burning.

Tony loved that crazy hair, and Loki's graceful, velvet-covered horns, and the paler lines that marked his skin like blueprints to some previously unknown solar system. He loved the way the god of never relaxing, ever, relaxed into his arms.

More than even those qualities, uber-lovable as they were, Tony loved the touch of Loki's mind against his own, the feeling of absolute togetherness that came with that touch, altogether different than his usual sense of being one of two small, distinct, lonely and only semi-adjacent islands whenever he chose to share his bed.

Having shared a ludicrous number of beds with a truly astronomical number of people in his "playboy" days, he knew that feeling just a little too well.

Tony had truly hated those days. He'd hated himself in those days, but the brief moments of ecstasy and the touch of warm skin on his skin had been better than the nothing he believed, in his heart of hearts, was all he deserved.

Enough drugs, more than enough alcohol, dimmed these feelings of inadequacy, and dim, in his opinion, had been better than feeling the full force of that self-loathing. 

Being an Avenger had helped with that, briefly, in the days before things went sour--and despite the never-ending nightmares of being trapped in the tunnel to Chitauriland, aka Hell. Being with Pepper, focusing on Pepper helped too, but by that time there had been Sokovia, and Siberia, and lying in the snow wondering if just closing his eyes and letting go might be better.

"No," Loki breathed sleepily. "Tony, no." Then, "I so regret..." before he drifted off again.

"No, honey, no, don't even think about that," Tony murmured back, and through maybe he hadn't meant to say that word, that endearment, he had, and didn't regret it.

Tony couldn't help but wonder how Loki's history compared to his. A thousand years of life was a hell of a lot of years.

"Quite undramatic, actually, compared to yours," Loki said, answering his unspoken question, his voice shedding some of its sleepiness, though it remained slower and softer than usual. His body fitted even closer to Tony's. "Understand that, as a prince of Asgard, I could neither wed with one like myself nor, except in rare instances, illicitly indulge my argr ways. The risk would have been too great, and to be caught yet another strike against me."

"Gotta love that advanced SpaceViking way of thinking."

"Only because I was a prince. Had I been of the people, such ways would be of no consequence."

"That doesn't really change my opinion, Lok."

"Thor was allowed to wander where he would, provided he took proper precautions, but arrangements were made for me to be married, quite young, to a princess of the Vanir, as a condition of the terms of some treaty or the other, the particulars of which I doubt are still remembered, least of all by myself. Sigyn was scarcely older than I was--we were, as it is said, 'two babes in the wood.'"

"And was your Sigyn a 'goddess of?'"

"Goddess of fidelity," Loki answered.

"Ooh. Ouch."

"No, no, she was faithful, and loyal, and all good things. Loyal, most especially. She deserved a true, good husband."

"And Sigyn is?"

"I told her, many times, she ought to return to Vanaheimr. Life could not have been easy, after my disgrace. She lived quietly by inclination, and though I often wished to be once again in the presence of her gentleness and grace, I'd never seek to bring trouble to her door. She was my friend. For much of my life, my only friend, and we shared a deep love between us, if not desire.

"I wish that I had seen her once more, and for her to have seen me as myself, not in the guise of Odin. Perhaps for her to have seen me even as I am now.  Would she have cared for me still, even knowing what I was? I can't be certain. I think she would, but I can't be certain." Loki sighed and rolled over, arms folded under his head.

"Was Sigyn... uh... one of the ones who got out?" Tony asked. Thor had filled him in, a little, on the fate of the Golden City and environs, and the less-than-successful exodus that followed.

Loki scowled up at him with a look that clearly said, Would I be in your bed if she'd lived?

"Sorry. Stupid question. You wouldn't be here."

"I would never dishonor Sigyn," Loki said, but at least his expression softened.

"Do you want to share what happened? It's not required, by the way."

"Hela, Odin's first-born and ostensibly my sister, slew her, along with many others, as she entered the Golden City. I felt within my mind as Sigyn expired, and wanted to weep--yet what use is there in weeping? What use is there in revealing any powerful emotion, where it can be seen, and mocked by others?"

"Um... As an outlet, I guess?" Tony laid his hand flat on Loki's chest. "Your heart's going about 150 miles per hour. Is that normal, or are you super-duper--and understandably--stressed?"

Loki gazed up at him for a long time. His mind had pulled away when he talked about his wife, but now it came close again. His eyes looked, in that moment, strangely innocent and young, or maybe he was seeing Loki, for once, at his most vulnerable, with not a single defense held up against him.

"Lok, what did you mean 'ostensibly?'"

"Hela looked alike to me: my hair, my eyes, my skin when I'm in my Asgardian form."

"But..."

"Follow that thought to its logical conclusion. Odin said that he found me by chance, a lone blue infant in an obscure corner of an obscure Jötunn temple. This finding, he claimed, came at the close of a battle. A battle that ended a war in which he killed thousands, if not tens of thousands of my kind. If, as he related, I was taken as a coin of bargaining between himself and Laufey King, how did he recognize me as a king's son? Also, had I been abandoned, as he said, for being small and weak, what possible value would Laufey have assigned to me, that would make me of any use whatsoever? In addition, why would I have been raised as a prince and his son, instead of a stable-lad, or a boy in the scullery? I find I must ask, also, what made me have hair, when others of my kind do not, and to be smaller than the usual Jötunn? I accept that Laufey was my father, but who was my mother? "

"You're totally right, Odin's story makes zero sense. If you're going to be a liar, at least be an effective one. Jesus, that little tale raises more questions than it answers."

"My thoughts exactly."

"And what about the rest?" Tony brushed Loki's hair away from his eyes. "Also, how the fuck were you supposed to know what his daughter looked like, if it was supposed to be you making yourself like her? Through your tiny baby telepathy?"

"Quite. I believe that when exposed to the nearness of the Odinforce, in the person of Odin himself, I took on my mother's appearance, just as in the presence of the Casket of Ancient Winters, I reverted to my father's. I believe that Laufey and Hela, out of anger for the one's defeat and the other's banishment, conspired against her father's rule, and that alliances were made."

"Yeah. That and a frickin' baby! What do you think they intended? To set themselves up as the rulers of both worlds, with an heir all ready in the chute who could look like a citizen of either? You have to admit that's pretty crafty."

"Only after the rebellion is successful and the war is won." Loki sighed and sat up, his hair braiding itself back quickly as he moodily bit down on a thumb claw.

"It should be easy enough to prove. Do you guys have DNA tests? For that matter, do you have DNA? Instead of... I dunno... magical sparkle juice?"

"Magical sparkle juice?" A sudden grin flashed over Loki's face. "Tony, you are in all ways ridiculous."

"Note to self--want to make gloomy Loki smile again? Be in all ways ridiculous."

"Yes, we have DNA. Of a sort. We can make children with Midgardians. That is, the Aesir can. The Jötnar are most likely a bit too frosty."

"Like, literally frosty? Like Frost Giants are actually frosty? Next you'll tell me that they're also giant!"

"Laufey, my father, appeared to be ten feet tall. More or less."

"That's fairly giant. Not giant-giant of course."

"I can't imagine even Hela, once of Asgard, would seek congress with a giant-giant." Loki sighed again, and the not-literal black cloud returned to hang over his head. "And now, since Thor has been hovering outside your door..."

"Actually hovering?"

"Only in the figurative sense. Thor seems too solid to hover effectively, one would imagine. Still, he wishes for our company, and we ought to indulge him in this. He has been uncharacteristically patient."

"And you'll tell him?"

"What I've told you. What I've worked out in my head. Why no testing of our--what did you call it?--'magic sparkle juice' will be necessary, and why your oppressive headquarters now has my brother's shape as a hole in its wall, and only half its ordinary compliment of windows."

"In other words, the usual," Tony said, and offered the god of unproven but reasonably-reasoned theories his hand for getting-up purposes.

Loki took it, but failed to immediately jump to his feet. "She had to have known me, don't you think? She had to have seen me fighting beside Thor, and taken note of my appearance, and to have recognized..."

"Lok. Shush."

Loki gave his surprised-and-a-little-irritated face, mouth in a straight line and both eyebrows raised.

"Believe me, I'll probably never, ever 'shush' you again, but this time take it from me. You don't want to go there. You don't want to borrow that kind of grief."

"You may be right in that," Loki answered, but he looked so sad, it made Tony's heart hurt.

"Lok. Loki." Tony cupped the god's face between his hands, all smooth blue skin and escaped tendrils of that wild black hair tickling his fingers, those green eyes that seemed to open up to infinity.

He'd thought before about becoming trapped by those eyes, and maybe he would be. At this point his didn't care.

Tony bent, and his lips brushed Loki's lips, while Loki's arms reached upward to draw him nearer.

Who could resist those lips and those arms? Not him. Never him.

His tongue slipped gently, then, into Loki's mouth, and tasted snow and sweetness.

Chapter Text

"Look at them, Tony," Loki said. "There's little joy in this sanctuary, and a rather significant amount of... What do you call it?"

He flashed Tony images of life on the other side of the door, where Thor still (figuratively) hovered, and  Bruce performed his own version of the nervous hover a little further down the hall. Bruce's, for some reason, involved shuffling his way through a tight little infinity-symbolesque pattern multiple times while throwing anxious glances in the god of thunder's direction. 

"Stress," Tony told him.

"'Stress,'" Loki repeated thoughtfully. "Such a small word for such an all-encompassing state of being. One somehow expects a grander term."

"Does one?" Tony teased, though he suspected what Loki really meant to express was that he felt just as skin-crawlingly on edge as Thor and Bruce did. 

Once the door opened, neither the god nor the physicist seemed exactly willing to meet Tony's or Loki's eyes, even though the god of not being able to help himself in these situations gave his brother a big, warm, but still more-than-slightly-wicked grin.

It took Tony a few seconds longer to realize that the warm and slightly-wicked part of that particular grin didn't really reach Loki's eyes. In fact, those eyes were now reminding him of the darkness he'd stared at through the viewport day after day, only emptied of stars. They made him think of that pretentious but foreboding quote about looking into abysses that looked back at you. Or however that went.

Christ, he was tired. His next nap was definitely going to involve more sleep, less chatting.

A little whisper of thought rippled over the surface of his mind ...no, don't think... please never...

Did you say something? he asked Loki.

It's not emptiness, Loki answered. Only...

He didn't go on, but Tony thought he'd figured out the answer anyway. Loki was worried--or maybe troubled might be a better word--and had his big godly brain cranking away at maximum capacity, trying out and discarding a million different scenarios, much like Strange did when he went into his weird little twitchy time-loop thingy. The whisper he'd picked up had been Loki pleading with him, don't misread me, don't push me away, on levels his god of "In control? Of course I'm in control!" would probably never in a million years admit to.

"What?" Tony said, to Thor and Bruce's unasked questions. "Loki really needed a break. That meeting wasn't exactly sunshine and roses."

He caught Loki's grateful look out of the corner of his eye.

"No," Thor agreed. "Regarding that, I have delivered to our teammates, as is said on Midgard, 'a piece of my mind.'"

According to the image Loki shot him, part of Thor's self-expression had involved mincing the medieval fetters into so many steel shavings and removing the door to the penitential cell in a really permanent way.

You would have thought we'd have heard that, Loki commented.

Which was true. You would.

Tony really did find himself liking Loki's brother more and more these days.

"Speaking of ineffective solutions," he asked, "Where is the Triumverate of Cranky?" It was probably too much to hope that Thor had ground their bones to make his bread, or something similar.

Not that Tony really wanted the god to do so--too much death already, and all that. He just wasn't above wanting Thor to make his royal displeasure known as strenuously as he chose.

"Either hitting or shooting at something, I'd guess." Having finally stopped his micro-pacing to join them, Bruce looked deeply, deeply unhappy, and part of that (along with, understandably, every fucking thing else) had to be that, although Tony was his friend, Bruce also liked Natasha an awful lot, and not only for her Hulk-taming abilities. He also had to be fully aware that he didn't exactly land at the tippy-top of her list of loyalties.

Tony understood. He'd liked Nat too, and still did, in a way, even after finding out where her true allegiances lay, and despite the fact that she'd pulled a whole sheep's worth of wool over his eyes. He couldn't even blame her. Their Black Widow was living proof of that saying, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." She showed them, and they still let her play them, so whose fault was that, really?

It hit Tony then, with the force of a Hulk-punch to the stomach that, ultimately, none of that fucking mattered, and wouldn't matter again for a long, long time--if ever. That all each of them had really been doing since his return, and before, was try to stumble as best they could through some messed-up game of make-believe in which they pretended that anything they'd ever fought for, or cared about, or bickered over, still meant something in this new reality.

"Too much death already, and all that?" Jesus.

Way to be glib, Stark, Tony chided himself, wondering why he didn't just tell the truth, that things got the way they were because he--because they, all of them, had totally fucking failed themselves, humanity, their world, their Universe.

Earth's Mightiest Heroes? Hardly. Earth's Most Desperate Failures was more like it.

Tony could accept the scope of that failure. He could. He saw the hugeness of it, in the abstract, but it wasn't the scope, or the hugeness that hurt him.

What hurt him--no, tell the truth here, Tony--what ripped him up inside, and drove his grief, was considering that one thing, that one person, who in his mind represented everything.

He'd loved that kid. Been bad for him, no doubt whatsoever, but loved him like the son he'd never have, because even he wasn't crazy enough to think he'd do any better parenting his own kid than Howard had done with him.

That goddamned crazy-brave, beautiful, weird, quirky kid, who didn't remind him of his younger self, because Peter Parker had been so much more than that, and so much better--a bright soul instead of a lost soul.

Tony's eyes burned, and he might as well have been back aboard Nebula's dead-bird ship, because the air refused to go into his lungs.

Breathe, and move forward. Loki's hand pressed between his shoulders, and the god's voice, in Tony's head, sounded both sardonic and kind.

That's all you've got? The wisdom of a thousand years?

I'm accustomed to failure, hjarta minn, Loki answered. I've had a great deal of practice.

Tony wanted to argue. He wanted to get angry at Loki, and accuse him of all sorts of things, to guilt him for his long life, his skewed perspective, asking what he'd done with the gift of all those years besides scheme and squabble with his family, and why should he get so damn many years when Peter Parker got so few?

"'Tell me, what else should I have done?'" Loki quoted quietly. His level gaze caught Tony's yet again, and yet again Tony found himself falling far and fast into that endlessness which, just like he'd guessed, wasn't empty at all, but full of almost too much. "'Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?'"

"Yeah. I guess," Tony answered. 

"The poem continues thus," Loki told him

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

"Thank you, god of English Lit 101."

"And? That was a question, not a statement. I know now what's required of me, in the end. What do you plan to do?"

"Breathe. Move forward. Try again and not fail? Fucking easier said than done, Lok."

"Indeed," Loki responded. "But then, it usually is."

Tony could help but think there might be something, back behind the whole "I know now what's required of me" cryptic wizard shit--something major--that Loki wasn't sharing.

"But I will," Loki told him. "I'll tell you everything." The amused little Loki not-quite-smile flickered over his lips, not, Tony suspected, truly amused at all. "Nearly everything. All the 'cryptic wizard shit,' at the very least. How you respond to that, Tony, remains, of course, up to you."


Thor led his anxious little flock toward the lounge with the big red sofas (as opposed to the one with the sleek caramel-colored sofas), which made sense. The sleek sofas would have been way too cramped for the Brodinsons, with their long legs and tendency toward unrestrained manspreading. 

Nebula had already staked out the space, and also seemed to have commandeered the chess table from the caramel-sofa lounge. They found her perched on one of the pair of armchairs Tony's decorator had supposedly hand-picked to color-coordinate with the larger pieces, though they both just looked kind of beige-ish to him.

Whatever the color, he had to admit they were comfy, if you actually let yourself relax in them. Tony wasn't sure, at this point, if any of them would ever relax again.

Nebula stared at the board suspiciously, picking up the chessmen one by one. "What is the purpose of these homunculi?" she asked Loki. "Are they gods of the Midgardians?"

"Merely tokens in a simple game of logic and domination," Loki answered. He had on his poker-face now, not a single sign showing of their recent conversation.

"And... so much for the ancient game of chess, purview of the super-intelligent," Tony said, since they seemed to be pretending again. Gotta maintain those masks.

Homunculi? Bruce mouthed at him.

Tony fought down an attack of the giggles, his emotions up, down, and all over the place these days. This particular attack might well have bordered on the hysterical, not that he intended to let anyone know. At the same time, he was glad to be there, with Bruce, and with this group of so-called aliens that he'd started to like as well, if not better, than he liked most humans.

They dispersed themselves silently among the available seating, Bruce claiming the other armchair, Tony and Loki on one sofa, Thor taking his spreading to truly epic levels on the other.

Speaking of spreads, someone had laid out a substantial one on the 70's-style Lucite coffee table.

"I made sandwiches and cocoa," Thor told them proudly. "Also apple juice, and crudités with hummus."

Who the hell, Tony wondered, Had taught the Norse god of thunder to call raw veggies "crudités?"

"It all looks great, Thor," Bruce said diplomatically.

Which it did. The slightly-weird overall flavor profile aside, Tony knew, from past experience, that Thor could make a decent sandwich. He also discovered that he was totally starving, even after having chowed down on bagels mere hours before. He fell to, selfishly thankful that hardship and loss had done nothing to hurt the god's culinary skills.

Loki helped himself to a glass of apple juice, something that clearly didn't escape his big brother's notice, because Thor said something naggy-sounding in their native language, to which Loki responded with an eye-roll and what could only be the Asgardian equivalent of, "Yes, Mom."

He did move half a sandwich to his plate.

Then left it there, untouched.

Thor, on the other hand, appeared to be prepared to stress-eat on a scale worthy of heroes, judging by the amount of food assembled not only on the table, but on the god's own plate. Truly, though, sharing any meal with the Asgardian tended to get a little awe-inspiring.

"Tone," Bruce put in, "Before I forget, Colonel Rhodes had to head down to D.C. He said to tell you, and I quote, 'Behave yourself, Asshole.'"

"Yeah, that's my Rhodey. Full of vain hopes."

"Hey, food!" The raccoon popped up out of nowhere, shoveled roughly two kilos of food onto a plate and did a kind of little bounce to get up onto a sofa, parking his furry butt next to Thor. "What? This is a private party?"

"Not at all, swee..." The thunder god glanced at his brother. Loki, it seemed, had done a little remedial work with him on animals and their names. "Dear friend."

Not at all, Loki informed Tony. My brother merely waited to see if anyone would correct him.

And no one did, until you? Sneaky Thor.

It's a thankless job, Loki responded, his mental tone amused, but at the same time uncharacteristically subdued. But someone must do it.

"What news of our people?" he asked out loud, then waited patiently for his brother's face to go through several highly-emotional changes before Thor managed to get it under control again.

"The Nornir be thanked, Brother," the Asgardian managed finally. "Many made their way to the escape pods, and with the guidance of friend Valkyrie, the greater number of these pods were able to break free before our ship exploded."

"And thence?" Loki cut in before emotion could steamroller his brother again.

"Here, to Midgard. The Nordic Union, with great generosity, has offered succor." Thor shrugged. It hit Tony suddenly that, under his sunny and energetic exterior, the god, just as Loki did, looked desperately sad, and more than a little weary. "We had thought, perhaps, to settle within this nation, these United States, and Steven spoke on our behalf, yet here, even in these days, we are alien, and more than a temporary welcome, if that, remains uncertain. Norway and Iceland offer to take us gladly, and the other nations pledge us treasure and all that is necessary. Time will reveal what is to be, and we will find our place--but we are so few, Loki. So few."

"I'd feared it was so," Loki answered softly.

"Had you?" The brothers locked eyes, and something complicated and painful seemed to pass between them.

"'Presume not that I am the thing I was,'" Loki said at last, in the same quiet voice. "'For god doth know, so shall the world perceive: that I have turn'd away my former self.'"

"I know not these words, brother," Thor answered. "They are not yours, yet their sentiment makes my heart wish to fill with hope."

"'Wish?'" Loki set his plate aside, the sandwich-half still pristine. "I take your meaning, Thor. I am of Chaos, and likely to be so for what remains to me of life, but a god of mischief need not necessarily be a god of malice. If I may be allowed again the luxury of using another's words, 'There is some soul of goodness in things evil, would men observingly distill it out. You've always seen some flicker of goodness in me, brother, even when I couldn't see it in myself. I only ask now that you not only see, but trust."

"Brother..."

"I am blood of your blood. You've witnessed the proof of this. You know the Allfather's plans."

"Okay. Totally not following." Between bites, the raccoon looked from Thor to Loki. "So, I get that this is the brother. The dead brother. But, what the hell?"

"In Norway," Loki said, laser-focused on Thor alone. "Before he went, and she returned."

"In Norway," Thor agreed, "And yet, I did not remember until the moment of our greeting here, in this Compound of Avengers, when I saw the whole of the Allfather's plan laid out before me."

Bruce raised his hand. "Um... I'm with the raccoon?"

"I believe we are all with the raccoon," Nebula chimed in. Not surprisingly, her confused-face looked an awful lot like her regular face, only not quite as angry.

"That's new," the raccoon commented. "I don't hear that a lot."

"Rocket," Loki said. "His name is Rocket."

A lightbulb went off over Tony's head. "Oh, right! Hence the song on the... harp thingy."

"Hringlaga hörpu," Loki corrected.

"Before we completely derail...?" Bruce interrupted. "Excuse me, Thor, but I thought you said your brother was adopted?"

"Yes," said Loki.

"No!" Thor protested.

"It's complicated," Tony put in, because someone had to, then caught his fellow non-Asgardians up to speed on recent Golden City history.

"I thought Hela was your daughter, Loki," said Bruce, whose confused-face looked exactly like his normal face, only more so.

"I have no daughter," Loki answered, in a slightly-disconnected way, as if he hadn't been paying close attention--to the conversation, at least. All the looseness had gone out of his posture at this point, with his spine straight as one of Clint's arrows, and his eyes narrowed.

He looked like he'd just been alerted, mostly by instinct, of some violent attack that would come soon... but not too soon. Not at any time he could accurately predict. Threads of green light began to wind around his wrists and hands, and rose up from his shoulders like wings.

"As Tony knows, and Thor suspected but was too well-mannered to mention, I believe that Hela Odinsdottir was my mother, and that I was sired upon her by Laufey, King of the Jötnar." Loki bowed his head, gazing down at his own slender blue fingers as if he didn't recognize them. The light pulsed around them in brilliant little shimmers.

"Not exactly your fault, babe," Tony said quietly--which made both a "honey" and a "babe" out of him today alone. He was starting to get disconcertingly soft in his well-preserved middle age. Despite that, he reached--not without a little trepidation--for Loki's green-glowy hand.

Only then he looked at Loki and couldn't keep joking, not even to keep up his own flagging spirits. "Seriously, Lok. Are we supposed to hate Thor for having a creepy big sister? Or Frigga and Odin for having an out-of-control daughter? These things happen."

"Better you should cast blame on our parents, Loki, or most especially on our father," Thor continued, in the closest thing to an Inside Voice Tony had ever heard from him. "Had I been told of my sister, and you of your true parentage, and the manner of your taking from Jötunnheimr, with blame for none, but with only honesty and compassion, what pain might have been spared? You suffered, as did I, and our mother, and even the Allfather, in the end. Order was taken from every Realm on the World Tree, Thanos brought to ascendance, and half the sentient lives in the Universe crumbled to dust, all on the strength of one man's falsehoods."

Loki pulled his hand away from Tony's--not, he suspected because the god of emotional trauma didn't want the comfort, which he almost certainly did, but because he harbored a real fear of crushing Tony's hand like a grape if he got too upset. His eyes had gone shut and his normally richly-blue skin had paled out to an ashy gray.

"No," Loki breathed. "No."

"The Nornir know," Thor went on, "That I bore great love for our father--for I will call you my brother, Loki, even now when all is known. He ruled for centuries as a mighty king, but a king of a sort I'd never wish to be.  In the same breath I use to praise him, I will also name him too frequently a liar and a coward. He did not raise you properly, my Loki, or me, having too often set the skills of one of us, the very cores of our beings, into pointless competitions of one against the other, leading us into quarrels and rivalry when we should have remained true friends. How did he dare to tell you, so coldly, 'No, Loki,' as if you were one of his hundar, as if he hadn't raised you upon falsehoods and unreasoning expectations instead of freely offering his guidance or support?"

Thor had started to shake by this point, his own powerful hands clenching and unclenching as if fully prepared to throttle something large and fierce.

"But he loved me at the end, Thor?" Loki's eyes again held that expression of heartbreaking vulnerability. "Did he, at the end?"

"Of course he did, Lolo," Thor answered. "After all, what did he give you? Would he share the Odinforce with a son for whom he had no regard? Half for you, and half for me, yes? That we may rule together?"

Loki studied his brother (uncle?) for an uncomfortably long time, eyes moving beneath their half-closed lids as if they were trying to read far too quickly from a complicated and hard-to-decipher book.

"No," he said at last.

Thor looked shocked.

"I wish I could see as you do, Thor, for you always paint things in such lovely colors, but no. I think my grandfather saw me, even at the last, as he had always seen me. Perhaps with some small fondness, but in the greater part as a tool that, however unique, might be easily used and discarded. He offered you his power as gift, as from respected father to respected son. He offered me nothing but a few empty words, and my body had to die lest my seiðr reject outright what was forced upon it without my knowledge or consent."

"Like an organ transplant." Bruce leaned forward in his chair, his eyes finally alive again with interest. "Even though the donated organ has to be a close match to begin with, we still need to use drugs to prevent a body from rejecting what it registers, in a way, as a foreign invasion." 

"Indeed, Dr. Banner. This... incursion grew and spread in me, just as it did in Thor, tasting of our selves, of our abilities, until, by the time of our reunion, the two had each become a great force, a force that became one when we embraced, then split again..."

"Leading to our current need for new wallboard and glazing," Tony said.

The look Loki threw him couldn't exactly be called happy.

"Like cell division," Bruce put in hoarsely. "Like this Odinforce, whatever it might be, became some huge single-celled organism that replicated by splitting."

Tony, in his boundless enthusiasm for science, rarely found any part of it creepy--but that image? He found creepy. Like Odin's power was some oversized pre-CGI Doctor Who monster that fed off the bodies and souls of his kids to death and beyond.

"And before that point," Bruce went on with growing enthusiasm. "It was evolving. Picking up material from you, Thor, and you, Loki, that mixed in with the original material. Do you think it's still working, exchanging more bits of information, making new material, creating...?"

"Something capable of taking out Thanos completely," Tony said. "If and when we find him."

Parts of Bruce's theory he really, really didn't want to ponder too deeply. Unknown forces, for one thing, tended to make him nervous. Unknown forces doing unknown things he didn't quite understand and didn't have time to study?--even more so.

Maybe more worrying than both? Loki with his throat crushed and neck recently broken, coming back from the dead--and that being something his unquestionably-sketchy dad/grandpa had not only foreseen, but counted on to move his plan forward. That he hadn't asked. that he'd done all that to Loki without his consent, during the time Daddy Dearest was supposed to be saying goodbye and heading off for a better life in SpaceViking Heaven.

Thor, who hadn't had much to say before then, launched into an extended speech in his and Loki's own complicated language, complete with dramatic hand gestures, interrupted, now and then, by Loki's terse answers. If Thor appeared distraught during this conversation, Loki just looked exhausted.

"Yes. Delightful," he said at last. "How this day constantly improves!"

"Lok?" Tony said. "Want to share?"

Not particularly, Loki's expression told him.

"My brother points out that the Allfather's plan may have been two-fold. Along with allowing the Odinforce access to my body, it may also have been his intention to create an andi draugsins. Not actually what we call a draugur, and you term a 'ghost,' but the 'spirit of a ghost,' a spirit that has gone into the darkness but returned alive again to its body--the point of this being that a draugur of sufficient rage and power may haunt his morðingi, his killer, to any place and through any time."

"Murderer GPS," Tony said, though he kind of hated himself for letting the words pass his lips.

"Accurate, I suppose, though I might have phrased the concept differently. By the Allfather's plan, it seems, I'm to be the hound that leads the hunter to his prey, and Thor the hunter who delivers the death-blow."

"With the mutated Odinforce to provide you both with the juice." Tony felt for Loki's hand again, holding it firmly, wishing the god would look at him, not just down at his own knees.

"And thus all ends, with you of Midgard spared from further battle, Thanos dead and Thor returned to rule what remains of Asgard, while I..." Loki swallowed convulsively. "I will be returned to Helheimr... or nothing. Understandably, I don't find this plan entirely appealing."

"No!"

They all all jumped as Rocket Raccoon slid off the couch, his striped tail bristling behind him. The still-mostly-full plate slipped out of his paws to shatter on the floor. . "Nope. Uh-unh. I call bullshit. Not about you, Thor's dead brother. Sorry, but not about you. The rest of it, though--that is not how this ends!"

"Rocket..." Bruce began, in his gentle voice, but the raccoon turned on him, looking absolutely fucking rabid.

"It doesn't end that way, random scientist guy I don't really know, because it can't. You don't get it--that purple pustule killed all my friends!"

"Rocket," Bruce tried again. "All of us have..."

The creature, big for a raccoon, small for anything else, sank down onto the floor, in the middle of all the spilled food, the top of his bowed head scarcely higher than the top of the table. "You still don't get it. You lose friends, you get more friends. Me..." He looked around their little group, glaring at each in turn. "Who wants to be friends with some hairy freak trash-bandit, huh? Where do I find my new friends?" 

"I agree," Thor said. "For Loki, for the Guardians, for all of the vanished... my father was short-sighted in this, as in many things. The death of Thanos ends only Thanos. It does not return what was lost. More must be done."

"Whatever help you need with that," Steve said from just behind him. "Count us in."

 

Chapter Text


Talk, as it normally did at Avengers Central, led to more talk, and more talk, and then still more talk as a chaser, to the point that Tony wondered: A) if his ears might actually jump down off his head and stage an independent getaway and, B) if a lingering death in outer space might actually have been preferable. 

After all that, the best idea anyone had been able to come up with was that they (insert actual plan here) recover the Mitten of Destiny and use it to undo Thanos's dirty work--though a vocal minority held out for a travel-back-in-time-and-make-sure-it-never-happens fix-it.

Major arguments against the former included, "So Big Purple All-Powerful Dude is just going to hand over the glove because we asked nicely, and/or he'll have left it in a really obvious location so we can find it once he's been sent to his just reward?"

Arguments against the latter? "Time travel hasn't been invented, duh."

Around midnight, when they'd all started to sound like a group of moderate-to-severely-irritated cats hissing and yowling at each other from an assortment of backyard fences, they decided to break things up and try again in the morning.

Loki, at this point, said something heartfelt and probably not complimentary in Asgardese and teleported away to parts unknown. Tony suspected that the flash of green light that accompanied this teleportation might well have been both unnecessary and a further expression of the god's personal feelings.

Welcome to the cluster-fuck, Tony thought. Are we ever going to manage not to approach any given problem in only one of two stupid ways?

"Why?" Bruce asked the tabletop, where his head head been resting for the past hour, "Do we always either talk every single thing to death, or else head off half-cocked, get in each others' way and trip over our own feet before failing miserably at whatever we're attempting?"

"It's the Avengers' way, my friend," Tony answered, squeezing his ScienceBro's cardigan-clad shoulder. "Go to bed, Bruce. Try to get some sleep, okay?"

"When you find Loki, apologize to him on my behalf, and tell him I'm sorry we're all such a bunch of dunderheads. Honestly, it's just embarrassing."

"Will do." Tony pushed up stiffly from his chair, stretched until his spine audibly creaked, and couldn't quite manage to hold back a massive yawn.

Loki, who so enjoyed words, would probably appreciate Bruce's use of the word "dunderheads."

With that in mind, he went in search of, eventually locating the god of having had quite enough, for one night, of dunderheads in general, and Avengers dunderheads in particular, outside in the courtyard, stretched out on one of the benches with his arms folded under his head.

"Hey," Tony said. "Whatcha doing, Lok?"

"Regarding the stars." Loki didn't add a reason to his answer--or anything, really--but he did sit up, swinging his legs down to give Tony a place to sit.

"Do you promise not to be offended if I ask you something?" Tony said.

"I make no promises," Loki countered, though he did wrap his arm around Tony's shoulders, pulling him close.

"Okay, fair enough. Mind if I ask anyway?"

"If I answered 'no,' would that deter you even slightly?" Loki sighed, then rested his chin on the top of Tony's head. "Very well. I feel you are determined. Ask away."

"I warn you, it's at least a two-parter."

"Splendid. I look forward to all your questions with bated breath."

"You lie like a rug."

Loki let out a huff of laughter. "If so, it would be a splendid rug of glorious colors, worthy to furnish the palaces of kings." He paused briefly. "I am, after all, the god of lies."

"For starters, then, where did your dad-slash-grandpa get his intel? How did he even know about Thanos, and knowing about Thanos, why didn't he see fit to be a good neighbor and give the rest of the Universe--any of the Universe--a heads up? Or is this one of those 'who the hell knows why my father did any fucking thing he did' scenarios?" 

"It's something of a complex question and, as such, may have more than a single answer. At the very least, I suppose he knew when Nidavellir was thrown into ruins."

"Nidavellir being where the really tall dwarves live?"

"Formerly lived. As you may or may not recall from Thor's less-than-concise tale of his adventures, Thanos slaughtered the entire race after they'd created a workable gauntlet to house the Infinity Stones, the one housed in Asgard being merely, it might be said, what you would term a 'display model,' and not suitable for use. He left only Eitri, their king, alive--to proclaim the story of his viciousness, I suppose. Eitri's hands, by the way, he turned to stone."

"Got it. Eitri, the guy who made..." Tony mimed a chopping action, because who the hell had time to remember what Thor named his personal possessions?

"Stormbreaker," Loki said, laughing quietly. "Whether Odin heard heard of the slaughter, and sought greater insight, or chose to do so in the course of ordinary events, I'd imagine my once-father consulted the Forstjóri Mímis. In your language, 'The Head of Mímir.'"

"The head of... Say what?"

"Mímir . Not his actual head, of course. During his life, Mímir numbered among the Allfather's principal advisors, having served Odin throughout his entire reign, and Odin's father Bor before him. He was a Mage of immense years and no little renown, displaying particular skill in the Oracular Arts. Before his death, he created what I would term a spell, and I suppose you might call a predictive algorithm."

"And that, uh, spell was The Head of Mímir."

"Precisely. The Allfather used it frequently, and so, in general, knew from hour-to-hour how the Nornir might spin their threads. In terms you might find more familiar, with the right questioner, The Head of Mímir was said to have something like 98.7% accuracy."

"Was Odin the right questioner?"

"Better than any other, I have heard. Mímir, of course, recognized his authority as King of Asgard. Odin also seemed, perhaps through long use, to know the best form of asking."

"But he still didn't realize you were going take his throne and boot him to Norway?"

Loki laughed. Or maybe "scoffed" would have been more accurate. "Didn't know? Oh, hjarta minn, you amuse me!"

"You mean he knew, and just... let it happen?"

"Let it happen? Tony, he set his trap and let me walk in, with my cleverness, and my afléttur spell. Oh, Nornir, what a benighted fool I've been!"

"Um, Lok? Afléttur?"

"'As if covered by the dark of night.' A spell I cast perfectly whilst existing in a state of woeful ignorance. Don't you see, Tony? What better way to punish man or god than by offering him his dearest wish?

"'You wish for a throne, Loki? Let me give you a throne, and let me personally enchant that throne so that you will pass your days eating grapes and engaging in frivolities, displaying to the general populace each and every shameful secret you possess. You imagine yourself to be an outsider now? Let me show you how deep that river may flow. I'll make it so that whatever you may do, whatever intelligence you possess, whatever acts of courage, skill or selflessness you may endeavor, no one of Asgard will ever again respect you.'"

Okay, there's a story there, Tony thought.

He wanted to tell Loki, "C'mon, babe, it can't be that bad," but bit back the words. How could he know, really? Maybe it could be. Maybe it really, really was.

"'You believe yourself a god of any sort?'" Loki went on, his words practically dripping acid. "'Let me send you next to a place where your abilities are near to nullified, to spend your days as the jester and lapdog of an all-but-omnipotent being. The jester, lap dog, and...'" Loki turned away suddenly, folding his long legs up against his chest and wrapping his arms around them. "It wasn't enough that I be a monster, a bastard, a criminal, for there can still be a certain dignity in any those things. No, I must be revealed as a fool, a laughingstock, a tool and a plaything. I must be shown as altogether unworthy.

"I could have borne any pain of my body, any fearful thing, but not that. Never that." He scrubbed both hands roughly over his face. "La commedia è finita!"

Tony knew that one. Pepper had sometimes liked to torture him with opera. For P.R. purposes, she said.

"The thing is, babe, are you actually going to buy into that?" Tony asked.

"Beg pardon?"

"Your dad set you up pretty well for a fall, I'll give you that. How far back do you think he knew? Before you were born? Just after? Five hundred years in? About the time you and Thor snuck off to Jötunnheimr? When do you think he launched his plan for your life?"

"My...? For my whole...?" The words came out as hardly more than a breath. Loki's legs slid away from his chest, leaving him definitely in upright and locked position, the sharp black claws on both hands biting into his palms.

Across the courtyard, a tree exploded into green and gold flame.

"Some parents live to shape their kids into exactly what they want. Sometimes that results in a... I dunno... a neurosurgeon, or a violin virtuoso. Sometimes it's a brilliant engineer and inventor with shitty self-esteem and an intermittent death wish."

Loki stared at the burning tree, which was beautiful in its way, all its leaves like birds made of green flame. "Or perhaps a less-than-consummate sorcerer with shitty self-esteem and a close-to-constant death wish?"

"Eh. Maybe," Tony answered, trying not to be overly enraptured by the adorable way Loki pronounced "shitty." It was just so... pristine. "To repeat myself, though, are you going to buy into it, follow Odin's road map for your life, and die with your boots on, or do we come up with the Loki-fucking-Laufeyson Chaos God Scenario?  Call me crazy but, personally, these days I'm kind of enjoying a Universe that has a Loki in it."

"You may not always feel that way, Tony." In the treelight, Loki's eyes were doing that black-holes-leading-to-the-other-side-of-the galaxy thing again.

"I may not always enjoy pizza and beer while watching Fast and Furious movies. Does that mean I have to swear off now because I might feel different when I'm ninety?"

"You have a singular way of expressing yourself, hjarta minn."

"And you don't?" Tony gestured toward the tree, where the flame birds had begun to launch themselves, each with a small hiss and a flare of fire, brightly upward into the night sky.

A few birds in, Tony reached out again to take Loki's hand, just as Loki's hand turned to take his, the two of them watching together until the last green flame took flight.

"You know," Tony said, "Impossible as it sounds, I may have liked that one even better than the butterflies. So, what do you think, Lok? What's the plan? What would Mimir advise?"

"If you wanted..." Loki's free hand reached into the darkness, again giving the unsettling impressing of having been been bloodlessly severed at the wrist. He pulled it out again holding what appeared to be a large brass lantern, the type boho hostess-types in Malibu tended to hang all over the garden during outside parties. "We could actually ask."

Chapter Text

"What do you mean, 'we need Thor?'" Tony asked, watching Loki's hand disappear yet again as he stowed The Head of Mimir safely away in his pocket universe. He couldn't help but wonder what else the god of unexpected treasures kept in there, aside from alien energy drinks and prophetic lanterns.

He shivered--not at the thought of what Loki might be hiding in his pocketses, as Gollum might say--but because the courtyard had gotten damn chilly, not surprising considering the past-midnight hour and the fact that he'd totally forgotten to throw on a jacket before embarking on his late-night Loki hunt. The cold, of course, didn't bother the god in the least.

"Given the choice between Magic Guy and Thundery Hammer-Ax guy," Tony added, "I'm gonna have to go with Magic Guy every time."

"I will speak with The Head of Mimir," Loki answered patiently. "However, as you'll recall, I am still a Chaos god, and as such, the answers I receive are likely to be somewhat... chaotic. As you may also recall, I'm not the King of Asgard, therefore not a person of such authority that Mimir would feel it necessary even to speak to me without Thor's direct command. The old man has--or had--a reputation as something of a curmudgeon."

"By the way, god of Chaos and getting no good answers from grumpy old men, I was going to tell you--Bruce referred to us all as dunderheads. I thought you'd enjoy knowing that you weren't the only one that meeting pushed over the edge. Also given your love of words and general opinion of the team."

"I guessed at Dr. Banner's frustration, considering the position of his head upon the tabletop. I was actually watching to see if he'd abandon decorum entirely and start banging it with force against whatever you call that unnatural surface that covers the table, as your fearless leader constant droned endlessly on."

"Believe me, I was banging my head internally. Not sure Steve's my fearless leader. Not so much, anyway. I mean, I'm willing to keep the peace, but..."

"But Siberia," Loki said quietly.

"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up." Tony didn't really want to talk about Siberia, even to Loki. Maybe someday he'd give him the whole story instead of the abbreviated version. Just not that night. "Anyway, I thought Bruce's word choice might give you a laugh."

"Indeed it would, only..." Loki stopped himself mid-sentence to give the politest possible yawn, even covering his mouth with his hand, proving you could take the god out of Asgard, turn him blue, give him claws and horns, and still not take Asgard, and its formal, formal ways, out of the god.

Loki's yawn being contagious, as yawns tend to be, Tony found himself totally unable to stop one so impressive it probably showed past his tonsils and halfway down his esophagus.

"I'm too tired to laugh," Loki continued. "I might manage something approaching a watered-down grin. Bedtime for us both, I expect."

"I can offer you a room," Tony told him, not wanting to force Loki, necessarily, into sharing his quarters, or make him feel as if he had no other option. "It won't be great, in fact it will be just like my room. At least there's a bed instead of a steel shelf. Also a notable lack of medieval fetters. Or..."

"'Or,' I would think, wouldn't you? It's good to feel..." Loki stopped himself, a bleak look coming over his normally expressive face. "It's good to feel. Full stop."

 "Yeah," Tony answered, "That it is." He didn't know what else to say.

With hands still joined, silently, they left the courtyard. This late at night the compound felt deserted, as if they were the only two people remaining in the entire world. To Tony, everything felt weirdly foreign, the way it sometimes did in dreams, every detail familiar, but at the same time alien. With that came a sensation of floating two or three inches above his body.

"It's the weariness," Loki said, turning Tony toward him, cupping his face between his cool and elegant hands. The blue of the god's skin seemed to blend in with the darkness, so that the outline of his body looked almost indistinct, almost ghostly.

Tony yawned again, unable to help himself, and heard his jaw pop.

"I am, I assure you, entirely corporeal. My poor mortal, let's see you safely to bed." Loki's arm wrapped securely around Tony's shoulders, steering him gently but firmly toward his own room.

They undressed in silence, by the light of the bedside lamp only, Tony stripping down to boxers and tank top, too tired even to change into fresh ones, as he normally would. Loki skinned out the combat suit he'd pilfered from Clint, which had somehow altered itself to be sleeker, more like something Natasha might wear. He didn't sense any vanity, necessarily, in the change, and certainly not any exhibitionism. Expecting Loki to go around in something ill-fitting would be like expecting a silky black cat to go around in baggy fur.

One thing, though, almost made Tony laugh. "Did you seriously steal Clint's boxer-briefs? And why I am I so disturbed even knowing that Clint wears boxer-briefs?"

"Midgardian-American cultural conditioning? Unless, of course that was meant as an entirely rhetorical question."

"Kinda." Tony gave a half-dead with exhaustion kind of laugh. "I'm pretty sure you hit the nail on the head anyway."

He stopped, and came close to swallowing his own tongue when Loki did away with the undies all together, standing there in his... well, in his altogether, without the least bit of self-consciousness. On the contrary, he joined his hands together over his head, doing such a massive stretch that his fingertips brushed the ceiling.

Other than the hair on his head, Tony couldn't help but notice, Loki was entirely hairless, but those pale lines, geometric and lovely, marked every part of his body. Some people might prefer the Thor type of masculine beauty, swole as hell, but Tony had always liked its opposite, long, lean lines and perfectly cut muscles. Even Loki's guy-parts were streamlined and elegant. Looking at the god made made him feel a little like a hairy ape.

The god moved forward with catlike grace, and took Tony's face between his hands again, gently pressing his lips to Tony's lips in a sweet, chaste kiss. 

"And so, goodnight, hjarta minn," he murmured after breaking that kiss. "Healthful rest and kind dreams through the night."

Tony pulled back the sheet and the cushy duvet and half fell into bed, Loki sliding in beside him. Only then did Tony notice the plum-colored patches that the shadows had hidden when the god was standing, on his shoulders and arms, over his hipbones, even down his inner thighs.  He touched a particularly dark patch over Loki's bicep.

"Lok...?"

"A souvenir of Sakaar. Like Siberia, perhaps a story for another time?"

"But you're okay, right? You weren't, uh...?" What he wanted to ask, but couldn't manage to get out, felt like more or less the most awkward question that had ever tried to left his lips.

"Tony," was all Loki said. Not in an angry way, just in a way that said "stop and go no further."

"I'm sorry. I won't push."

"I will tell you. One day. Sakaar was..." Loki's face went altogether blank, except for his eyes, that held a look of bitterness and pain. "As I've said before, a planet of garbage, that makes one feel, also, like trash. As if one will never be free again, or clean, or in full possession of one's own will. One does what one must to survive, I suppose." He paused. "I'm not like Thor. It's not in me to face life's adversities as he faces them, like so much grass in a field to be trampled down before him as he charges ahead."

"I've kind of noticed that about your brother-slash-uncle."

"When he escaped with the Valkyrie and I refused, that was not for cowardice, or disinclination to fight, or love of pleasure, it was..."

I know, Lok, Tony thought. I know.

"It was for shame. Only for shame, as if the filth of Sakaar and the Grandmaster's... pleasures would remain forever visible upon my skin, never to be washed clean. Thor, I think, will never guess the determination, and perhaps a different sort of shame, it took to follow after him."

"I can understand that, though. I think."

Loki shook himself, an all-encompassing shudder that ran from his shoulders down to his toes, then flashed a tight, almost humorless grin. "On the whole, however, I believe it was worse to be dead."

"That's some dark humor you've got going there, babe." Tony brushed a few stray tendrils of hair back from Loki's face, then kissed him a second time.

"I suppose it is, and I suppose also that I ought to apologize. It wasn't my intention to discomfit you, hjarta minn."

"I'm not so much... what was that? Discomfited?" He slipped his arms around Loki, pulling him close. Their foreheads touched, and the god's body lay so close to his that Tony could feel the nearness, like a low-pitched hum, or electricity. He stroked Loki's hip gently, his fingers nearly gliding over the soft, smooth skin. "Nope, not so much discomfited as I am sorry that you had to be in a place like that, sorry anyone ever hurt you. Sorry most of all, I guess, that you had to feel that way about yourself."

"It's not an altogether unfamiliar feeling," Loki answered, and pressed nearer. But now... I feel comforted. I feel at peace. Who would ever have thought, in years past..." Loki's breath came out in a soft sigh, and just like that, he was asleep.

In less than five minutes, drowsiness came over Tony like a thick, dark curtain, and he slipped away too.

He dreamed that night, for about the millionth time, of the Battle of New York, and of falling and falling--only this time Loki caught him, and grinned at him, as if all of it was part of some amazing adventure, and as if all the future held would be equally amazing things.

Tony smiled in his sleep then and, like Loki, felt comforted and peaceful, and as if everything, in the end, would turn out okay.

Chapter Text

 


"So, this is the--what did you call it, Lok?" Tony asked.

"Forstöðumaður Mimir," Loki answered. "That is, in your American tongue, 'The head of Mimir."

Everyone stared.

"Uh, Tony..." Bruce began.

"Yes, I know it looks like a garden lamp from Pottery Barn, but..."

"I was going to say the Lighting Department of Home Depot," Bruce answered, "But Pottery Barn works."

"When have you, Tony Stark, ever been in a Home Depot?" Rhodey laughed. "You've never been in a Home Depot."

"Hey, I may be a genius, billionaire, former playboy, philanthropist, but I have so shopped at Home Depot. You can get a lot of good stuff at Home Depot."

At that point, Loki looked about two seconds away from the most epic eye-roll of his life.

"Apropos of nothing," Tony said.

"If we might proceed?" Loki put in, in tones that seemed to suggest that he really would have liked to tack a "pathetic Midgardians" onto the end of the question. He gave the lantern a slightly stern glance and its little front door unlatched, swinging open.

The inside looked completely and totally unimpressive. If anything, it held a faint shimmer, like heat haze over a California highway.

"What do I ask?" Unlike the rest of them, Thor hadn't stopped staring, neither did he seem unimpressed. Maybe his godly eyes caught something theirs weren't capable of seeing. "Brother, I don't... What should I say?"

 Loki gave his little flickering smile. He still looked tired, Tony realized, and had to wonder how well he'd slept, especially since he himself had semi-woken a couple times to Loki's miserable-sounding sleep-murmurings. That, and the bruises, plum-colored on the god's blue skin, didn't tell a happy story.

Hopefully, if all went well, they'd have lots of happy stories to take the place of all the bad ones.

"Ask about Thanos," Steve said. "Where is Thanos?"

"I know where Thanos is," Rocket, Scraps and Loki all said in unison.

"On one of two possible planets," Nebula added.

"Kinda. Roughly," Rocket put in. "Not like I know his street address or anything."

Loki stood silently at the back of the room, his eyes closed. He really must have been tired.

"Can you show us?" Natasha asked.

Visual aid time!, Tony thought.

"Hey, FRIDAY," he said, "Wanna help us out here?" 

Instantly an image appeared over the conference table, the velvet-black depths of space all bright with stars.

Once Rocket rattled off some numbers that Tony figured must be coordinates, the scene shifted, from more stars than he could easily count, to a far more finite view, a single solar system  that looked, from that distance, more or less like any other solar system--peaceful, still, lovely in its planetary way.

"There." Some of Nebula's cyber-bits flashied on and off, red light-green light. The scene changed again, this time to a solitary planet, its surface swirled with color and looking so real and so near Tony felt like he could reach out and touch it with his fingertips.

"Here." Loki did that thing where he moved without seeming to move, his eyes open now and almost feverishly bright. A patch of glowy green appeared, like a small verdant continent, over the other swirly colors.

Tell them what I show you, Loki sent. His eyes drifted shut again, and images began to play at once through Tony's head.

"The light's really warm," Tony described, following orders. "Kind of a pinky-gold shade. Fucking Thanos made a scarecrow out of his armor--it's on a post, anyway, with his helmet on top, in a field of what looks like thistles and prickly pears. There's also a kind of rustic woodland cabin, minus the woodland."

The image shut off suddenly.

"Hey. Hey," Bruce said. He jumped up from his seat near the end of the table, grabbed Loki's arm and ushered him to a chair. The god had gone pale, which with his skin color translated to something close to baby blue. He looked shaky as hell.

Thor hurried to fix his brother a cup of coffee, extra cream and sugar added, which Loki sipped gratefully. Luckily the god of thunder hadn't filled the mug too full, because Loki's hands had started shaking in sharp little tremors.

"All that came from the Lokster, by the way," Tony said. "It wasn't mine."

"Ask, brother..." Loki's hands may have been shaky, but his voice held rock-steady. "Ask where the stones may be found in this present day. Confirm what I've seen. What I believe I've seen."

Now it was Thor's turn to look nervous. His hands seemed steady, though, as he pressed his palms to the tabletop on either side of the lantern. The spell, algorithm, ephemeral disembodied old man head, or whatever it was, began to burn brighter, no longer a haze, but a discernible, flickering flame.

Strangely, more than anything else, it resembled the flame from a slightly-overenthusiastic culinary torch, like you could have brûléed a French dessert over The Head of Mimir.

"Does that thing remind anyone else of a Coleman lantern?" Clint asked.

Thor cleared his throat, then dried his palms on the legs of his jeans.

"Go ahead, Thor," Loki told him gently. "Let him feel your authority. Make him aware of who you are, and what it is you would have him see."

"Yes," Thor answered, then dried his hands again. "Yes, brother."

"It'll be okay, Thor," Steve said encouragingly. "You'll do fine."

Thor cleared his throat a second time then, sounding a lot like a kid (though a kid with an unusually deep voice) who's not quite ready to give his oral report in front of the class. "Honored Mimir," he began. "It is I, Thor, King of Asgard. Where can we find the Infinity Stones?"

Dead silence.

Then more dead silence.

"Brother," Loki said, sounding unusually gentle, "I'm not entirely certain the Forstöðumaður Mimir speaks English."

"Oh!" Thor exclaimed, grinning with relief. "Shall I try again, Loki?"

"In Aes, I would think," Loki answered.

"Heiðraður Mimir," the god of thunder said, sounding more than usually polite and respectful. "Still það er ég, Þór, konungur í Asgard. Hvar getum við fundið Óendanleiki Steinar?"

"'Óendanleiki Steinar' is 'Infinity Stones,'" Thor translated helpfully. "I introduced myself, as Loki suggested, and asked where we could find them. Sometimes it takes a minute."

Almost immediately, though, the propaney-looking light began to leap around in its lantern. After about a minute of this, a high, hissing, expressionless voice came from the heart of the brightness, creepy as fuck, and setting not only Tony's teeth and the hair of the back of his neck on edge, but every hair, anywhere, on his entire body.

An unpleasant tingling, shuddery feeling crept down his backbone, and it must have hit just about everyone else too, because he noticed his teammates--and their guests--start shivering and/or squirming in their chairs.

Rocket's lips actually drew back from his sharp raccoon teeth, and he pressed his paw-like hands (or hand-like paws) down hard over his ears.

Only Loki held still, looking thoughtful and intent.

"Thöggormurinn eyðir halanum sínum," the weird voice intoned (and Tony wouldn't have been able to spell a word of it, if he hadn't seen Loki record The Head of Mimir's answer later, in his elegant, definitely-not-Palmer-method script).

Sigurvegari hvílir
Sárt enn ánægður með verk sín
Sex ljósir slökktu
Leita okkur alls staðar og hvergi
Snúðu og snúðu aftur til þar sem við vorum.

Which, um... okay...?

"The serpent devours its tail," Loki translated, for the benefit of those who didn't speak complicated quasi-Nordic languages with strange accents and extra letters.

The conqueror rests
Wounded yet pleased with his deeds
Six lights extinguished
Seek us everywhere and nowhere
Turn and turn again to where we were.

 Alrighty then.

Thor and Loki appeared concerned. Everyone else traded looks.

"That was about as clear as mud," Rhodey said.

"All prophecies are akin to riddles," Loki told them. He sounded absolutely exhausted, and Tony had to wonder if Old Lantern Man was self-charging, or if Loki had to supply his juice.

The latter, he suspected.

"Decipher the riddle," the god went on, "And you'll understand what's foretold."

"I understood only some of what was said," Thor told his brother. "The Infinity Stones... are they the six lights, Loki?"

"Loki, do you understand the meaning?" Bruce asked.

"I believe I do," Loki answered. He paused to sip his coffee, clearly making his hands stop shaking through sheer force of will. "'The serpent bites its tail' refers to never-ending cycles, in this case the cycles of time. The conqueror, of course, is Thanos. He's resting, Mimir tells us--perhaps in retirement, since he's abandoned his armor. He's also injured, but pleased, nonetheless, with what he's accomplished."

"Then now might be the time to attack and get the stones," Steve said, half rising from his seat in his excitement.

"There's no point," Loki answered. "The stones are gone, most likely already destroyed. To seek them nowhere, Mimir suggests, would be as useful as seeking for them everywhere."

"Then what fucking use was this... whatever this was?" Clint lunged to his feet, batting at the lantern so hard it flew halfway across the room, disappearing into nowhere (or, most likely, into Loki's pocket universe) instead of shattering against the back wall.

"This shit show," the archer ground out through gritted teeth, and Tony felt nearly battered by the force of his rage and grief.

Natasha wrapped both hands around Clint's arm, pulling him back down into his seat. "Then that's it," she said. "The Infinity Stones are gone. We can't fix it. We can't fix anything. No one's coming back."

"Wait... Wait..." An idea was trying to form in Tony's brain, like that goddess who popped full grown out of her dad's head.

Was that one of Loki's and Thor's crew? he wondered.

It was not, Loki replied. You're thinking of the goddess Athena, born as an adult from the head of her father, Zeus, and neither were 'ours,' belonging, as they did, to the Greeks.

So--hear me through, Lok, and correct me if I'm wrong--the stones may be destroyed now, but they weren't in the past.

Tony felt a wash of approval from Loki rush through him. You really are far too clever for a Midgardian, hjarta minn.

Tony wanted to be offended, but just couldn't manage it, not with joy bubbling through his veins like fine champagne.

"'Turn and turn again to where we were,'" Bruce repeated, frowning. "'We,' I think means the stones there. "But turn and turn again? Turn what?"

"Time, Bruce. Turn back the clock. Turn back the hands of time. Travel back to where the stones were before they were here."

"I possessed two, here in Manhattan, upon my last visit," Loki put in. "Wouldn't that pompous goat-fucker, Dr. Strange, have guarded a third during that same time?"

Tony couldn't hold back a laugh. "Did you seriously just call Steve Strange a pompous goat-fucker?"

"It's considered a grave insult," Thor explained, with a stern look at his brother. "Loki is perhaps over-excited. I'm sure he meant no disrespect to your Shield-brother."

Tony sure as hell wasn't going to take that bet, but he did find himself grinning so widely his mouth hurt. "See it's easy--we find a time when we know where the stones definitely were and we go there. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy. Smoke me a kipper, I'll be home for breakfast."

"Tony..." Steve had on his "I fear for your mental health" voice.

"Yo, Tony," Rhodey put in, "I see one problem, and it's a pretty big one."

"What's that?" Tony stopped himself just short of a full-on happy dance.

"Uh, Tony, time travel hasn't been invented yet?" Bruce said. His eyes looked wet and sad behind their lenses.

"You mean we can't just roll out our Wayback Machine and jump into it?" Clint's voice dripped sarcasm. "Your fucking lantern. Your fucking theories. I lost my wife. I lost my babies. I just about lost my mind, and I don't know what to do with that, and there you sit, celebrating shit you can't even accomplish."

"Pardon me, Clinton," Loki interrupted, "But I certainly can. I've been able to do it, on a small scale, since I was a child."

Chapter Text

"Okay, right," Clint started, turning on Loki a glare so burningly furious it probably would have reduced a lesser being to so much volcanic slag. "So we accept that Evil Mr. Wizard there isn't conveniently lying about his ability to travel through time, Tony's fine with knocking together some gizmo that boosts his abilities, we believe that the creepy talking Coleman lantern made an actual prophecy, and that the liar who fucking lies actually interpreted what it said for our benefit? Sure. Right. Got it."

"When did I lie to you, Clinton?" Loki asked quietly. "I never lied to you."

"You took over my fucking mind, asswipe. Just to remind you."

"As you'll recall, and as I explained previously, Thanos and The Other controlled me. That I was..." Loki's voice cracked here, but he quickly controlled it. "...Lost for a year in the caverns of the Chitauri."

"Ooh, so you were lost. Big deal."

"By lost, remember, he doesn't actually mean lost lost, Clint," Tony put in, trying for his best impression of one of the adults in the room.

He then watched, with a mix of awe and horror, the exact moment at which the full, unvarnished meaning of everything Loki had told them about the lead-up to the Battle of New York--along with all the repercussions that followed--finally unfolded in Thor's brain. He'd seen the god of thunder tear up a couple times, in a slightly moist, this-is-what-we-consider-manly way. What he hadn't witnessed was Thor's honey-gold skin blanching sheet-white, and the floodgates opening.

But only from the god's undamaged eye.

It made everything worse, somehow, that the tears only streamed down on one side.

"My brother was tortured, can you not understand this, falskur skjöldbróðir minn?" Thor said, in a flat, dull, ragged voice, his handsome face reflecting every single subsequent event as it ran through his mind: the way he'd threatened, then chained and muzzled Loki, delivering him home to Asgard, to their father's tender mercies, and seen him locked up in solitary confinement for the gods (literally) knew how long...

"'My false shield-brother,'" Loki translated helpfully, because--emotional strain aside--of course he hadn't stopped being the god of mischief.

"If he was actually tortured," Clint muttered under his breath.

The god of thunder abruptly shoved himself away from the table, sending his chair bouncing back about ten feet in the process, and dashed away--if such a big guy could be said to dash. Really, it was a little bit more of a frenzied jog, with maybe a side order of lumber thrown in.

Loki rose from his seat far more gracefully. "Excuse me, please. I should see to my brother. Feel free to malign me at will during my absence."

Tony didn't rise to Clint-levels of giving the stink-eye, but he also didn't exactly bathe them all in the light of his benevolent gaze. "Don't. Please."

He caught a quick flash from Loki: My brother isn't well. We're travelling to Norway.

Norway, huh? Long term or short term?

For the afternoon, I'd think. I'm finding Stormbreaker extremely convenient, and Thor is far more accommodating than Heimdall ever was. Tinker on something, won't you, that might--what do you say--"boost" my abilities? Also a mechanism of grounding, so that we won't all be electrocuted, without ill intent, should my brother become overly enthusiastic.

Got it, babe.

A pause.

I become increasingly fond of you, Tony. The declaration wasn't in any way grudging, but Loki actually sounded kind of surprised by his own words, as if fondness wasn't something he expected or experienced frequently. 

Tony realized that he was grinning like a fool. I find myself becoming increasingly fond of you too, Lok.

A feeling of warmth spread through him right before Loki disconnected.

"Look, guys," Tony told the team (and associates), "We kinda lost Thor for a little bit, and I need to work on a couple ideas."

Steve gave him his serious, imaginary-flag-waving, Is this for the good of the country? expression. "What ideas, Tony?"

"Loki has some ideas for using his bro's lightning--as a power source, maybe? Anyway, he wants me to throw together something that will ground the electricity, the better for all of us not to get accidentally fried."

"But, seriously, can we trust him?" Natasha asked. "What happened last time aside, he still seems..."

"Squirrelly," Rhodey put in. "Sorry, Tony. He seems squirrelly."

"I think he's okay," Bruce said. He looked typically earnest, serious, and thoughtful, and Tony would have agreed with him, even if his ScienceBro had been a total stranger. He seemed just that credible.

I knew there's a reason why we're friends, Tony thought. He'd always have a soft spot for Rhodey but, increasingly, Bruce moved up into the best friend spot, maybe because they needed and supported each other, and their thoughts meshed, while Rhodey (though undoubtedly a good guy), always seemed so complete in himself he never really needed anybody.

Their friendship--such a typical American guy friendship--hit a certain point, then went no deeper.

Also, Rhodey not only didn't understand this thing he was having with Loki, Tony had the feeling he never would understand, that he'd always hold his place as The Friend Who Doesn't Approve.

Rhodey liked and admired Pepper--which was great, Tony loved Pepper too, but Rhodey would probably never get that Pep not only understood, she was okay with things as they'd ended up.

Pepper continued to be a fantastically wonderful person. Tony wished for her every happiness the world had to offer, hopefully with someone way less high maintenance than himself.

It would have wrecked him to see her turn out unhappy in the end. Which (he had to admit) would probably have been inevitable if they'd stayed together. How many "breaks," after all, had they taken from each other, most of them by Pepper's choice, over the years?

"There's also, as Clint puts it, the 'gizmo,'" Tony said, pushing all such thoughts away. "Loki wanted me to work on that, too."

"And you're just gonna do that." Clint wasn't exactly sneering, but he still had that hyper-intense "ready to murder someone with my bare hands" look. Judging by the archer's recent comments, that homicide victim would undoubtedly be Loki. "Give him extra power on top of the extra power he already has? Yeah, sounds like a really good idea to me."

"Clint, excuse me for saying..." Steve cut in, "But, you know the expression, 'Drastic times call for drastic measures?' I'd say that applies here, wouldn't you? You want your family back. The rest of us... we want our world back, and maybe we can't fix everything, or bring back everyone, but we have to try, don't we?"

"Even if that means working with Loki?" Natasha asked, looking nearly as intense as Clint. "Steve, this is crazy. It's Loki, and whatever his backstory..."

Nebula jumped up from her seat, straight to the top of the table, crouching there with both her swords drawn and in her hands. "He does not lie! He will help us!"

"Let's all trust Thanos's blade-carrying semi-mechanical daughter too, why don't we?" Clint said. "Because that also sounds like such a good idea."

"C'mon, you heard the lady," Tony said, thinking of how he'd liked things so much better when he was the snarky one. "The California Raisin treated her just as badly as he did the rest of us. We all lost friends and loved ones, but at least we weren't personally spiralized like a zucchini. Thanos did that to her. Imagine, if you will, how it must have felt."

"It's a way of preparing vegetables," he heard Bruce whisper to Steve. "There a gadget that cuts them into thin, curly ribbons, like noodles."

"Aw, Nebs is okay," Rocket said. 

"Yeah, let's also trust the talking raccoon."

"You have something against raccoon-Americans, Clint?" Tony asked, considering how much more he'd liked Clint 1.0 than the updated 2.0 version.

He still felt every sympathy for all his teammate lost but, Christ, this angry bitterness helped nothing and nobody. Neither did lashing out at everyone in his path.

"Let's take a walk, partner," Natasha said, in her "she who must be obeyed" voice, grabbing Clint's sleeve--and he did follow, however reluctantly, though pretty soon Tony observed them gesticulating wildly at each other out in the courtyard.

"I guess that's it then, until Thor comes back." Steve sighed, actually showing one of his so-rare-they-were-practically-extinct moments of discouragement. "I'm feeling the need to punch something."

"Say 'hi' to your heavy bag for me," Tony told him. "Meanwhile, I'm off to tinkering. Bruce? Rhodey? Scraps? Rocket? Coming with?"

"Nah, my gun hasn't worked right since it was a fucking musical instrument," Rocket said. "Gonna tinker a little myself, so I'll pass. Catch ya later."

"I need to check in with HQ." Rhodey may have liked the end results of Tony's inventions, but he got super antsy--and borderline annoying--watching him tinker.

"I will come with you," Nebula told him, sliding her swords back into their sheathes. Tony had to admit he found her technique pretty slick and stylish.

He'd probably slice his thumbs off, though, if he tried handling razor-sharp bladed weapons by her method.

Bruce just nodded.

"Good luck," Cap said.

Something about his open, honest, sincere face made Tony feel a little squirmy, with that usual feeling of wanting to like and trust Steve because, dammit, the guy was maybe easy to mock, but equally hard to resist.

"I mean that, Tony."

Tony, though, didn't know if he'd ever find his way back to that place of friendship and trust, or even the snarky indifference he'd felt the first time they'd met, when Cap had just been some overly-sincere stranger in a spangle-suit. It wasn't even being butthurt about their change in circumstances--it was having been, literally, wounded and abandoned.

Maybe the wounding part he'd have eventually been able to take, but he had kind of a thing about abandonment.

That, and having his parents murdered by Steve's best friend.

"Buck didn't mean to. With your folks. You know that, Tony," Cap told him.

"Yeah. Okay."

"You want me to forgive Loki, and I guess I can do that. I can accept that he was tortured and mind-controlled--but the exact thing happened to Bucky, too. Loki didn't mean to do what he did? Well, neither did my buddy. Think about that, maybe?"

"Again, okay. Yeah, I can do that. Maybe. Only what about the other part? What about leaving me alone in the snow? Not cool, Cap--except in the most obvious way."

"Guys?" Bruce said. He and Nebula stood shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to pitch in if Steve decided to rip Tony's face off, in the most All-American possible way.

Rhodey and Rocket, both smart guys, seemed to have already exited stage left.

"I don't know why I did it," Steve confessed. "You were my friend, Tony, and maybe, some day we can be friends again." His blue eyes went unfocused, gazing off into the distance, toward the Thor-shaped hole in the wall. "It's the worst thing I ever did, bar none, and sometimes I wake up... I wake up and can't believe what I did, like I'm not just guilty, I'm haunted by that day. I'd take it back if I could."

Tony didn't want to, but he did believe what Steve told him. Every word. He just wasn't sure those words made a difference.

"I'm sorry," Steve went on. "I'm as sorry as I can be, and I'm glad you made it back home. Both times." He stuck out his big, powerful right hand, its nails--even now, in dire circumstances, with half the world gone and everything else crumbling into even more dust around those left behind--still clean and neatly trimmed.

Tony's nails looked like he'd dug his way out of his own grave--which he guessed, in a way, he had.

He didn't mean to shake Cap's hand. Even then, he really didn't.

Only then Tony felt himself reaching out, his fingers curving around Steve's hand, and Steve's fingers curving around his. It maybe wasn't the warmest handshake in the history of handshakes, but it had happened. It was.

And, after all, if you couldn't forgive someone at the end of the world, when could you forgive them?

"For what it's worth, Cap," Tony told him. "I'm starting to get that thing where you care so much about a person no one else approves of. It kinda sucks."

"That it does," Steve agreed.

Chapter Text

"Sorry, I still can't picture it, Tone," Bruce said, right before breaking into a giant yawn. 

Tony couldn't say he found himself altogether surprised, considering his ScienceBro's current position, flat on his back on the workshop table with FRIDAY's latest schematic, an inside-out and upside-down Moebius Strip, half of which appeared to rise into the air above Bruce, with the other half rooted in his chest. Good thing it was only a hologram and not a working model.

Speaking of working models, Tony had just turned toward his workbench, intending to dig a strip of metal out of his scrap drawer, the better to give Bruce a hands-on demonstration of exactly what he meant shapewise, when he found himself letting loose with a high-pitched shriek that would have done a toddler proud.

"It is I, Mephistopheles," said the horned apparition sitting cross-legged on the bench., "Would you care to sell your soul to me, Dr. Stark?"

"No, because you're an asshole!" Tony answered, laughing even while his heart beat double-time.

Maybe it wasn't just the surprise that made his heart beat fast. Loki looked so delectable in his warm forest-green sweater and perfectly-fitted black jeans, his hair braided back from his face and a faint flush in his cheeks, that Tony couldn't stop himself (not that he in any way wanted to) from wrapping his arms around the god's waist, burying his face in the thick, warm wool, breathing in Loki's snow-and-evergreen scent, mixed now with the fresh, salty smell of the ocean.

"Mmn, you smell good, Lok. Like a vacation."

Loki laughed softly, the vibration of it going through his body, creating a pleasant buzz against Tony's skin. Along with that, the god's long fingers wove gently through his hair, and despite the desperate state of the world, Tony felt cared for and at peace.

After what would probably have seemed like an embarrassingly long time under normal circumstances, he finally felt obligated (in a grudging kind of way) to pull back again. "I missed you like hell... Mephistopheles. Who is Mephistopheles supposed to be, anyway? The Devil?"

"One of the Seven Dukes of Hell, I believe," Loki answered, leaning close to whisper in Tony's ear, "Someday you'll give me your soul willingly, no payment or coercion required--and I'll just as willingly give mine to you."

He took Tony's face between his hands then, leaning in to kiss him sweetly and deeply, his tongue teasing Tony's tongue in a way that made him feel both shivery and delighted.

"Damn, I really missed you, Lok. Like really, really missed you. How was Norway, though? How's your brother?"

"And I missed you, hjarta minn. Even through these brief hours I found myself thinking of you with distracting frequency--which is by no means typical of me, I assure you."

"Mmn, flattery will get you everywhere. That was flattery, right?"

Loki gave his hair a little tug, then kissed the top of his head, which was answer enough, Tony thought.

"Norway reminded me, however, that much as I enjoy the complexity of a great city, a part of me yearns always for the mountains and the sea. Our people have been generously granted a place on the northwestern shore, at the edge of a fjord, and this will be New Asgard. Despite their travails, I believe they'll be happy there."

"Wow, so soon? Three cheers, then, for Norway and the Nordic Union!"

"Indeed. Their generosity has done a great deal to lift my brother's spirits--we've agreed to continue on as brothers, by the way. I may be several centuries younger, but styling myself as Thor's nephew still seems awkward in the extreme."

"I can see how it might," Tony said, going in for another snuggle. "Any more tales of New Asgard?"

"A Ráðhús has already been built--that's a 'town hall' to you--with quarters for the borgarstjóri, or mayor, and a council chamber for the King's business and meetings of the Alþingi."

"Excuse me for asking, but 'All Thingy?'"

"The Parliament, and don't mock our language. Thor, of course, is King Thor, I am Crown Prince Loki, Heir and First Councilor to the King, and the Valkyrie, who has cleaned up nicely after living for some time as a drunken trash collector, has been elected Mayor and Chief Parliamentarian. We each gave speeches. Mine, of course, was the best. Much mead and beer were imbibed, many toasts given, and I'm still mildly tipsy. Also, my brother and I went fishing, which was chilly but invigorating. My brother failed yet again to catch the Midgard Serpent."

"I thought the Midgard Serpent was one of your kids," Bruce said from the non-comfort of the steel tabletop, not quite as asleep as he appeared.

"For the last time, please," Loki answered, laughing, "I have no serpent children, no wolf children, and no half-dead half-living children."

"You didn't mention the horse. Did he mention the horse, Tone?"

"Also no horse children," Loki added, in lofty tones, though his mouth kind of flatlined a bit, and shadows darkened his emerald eyes.

He yawned then, in his uber-polite way. "And now, unsurprisingly, as it was half-past-eight in the morning when we left New Asgard, and is now half-past-two even by New York time, I'm nearly falling over with exhaustion. Goodnight, Dr. Banner. Would you like me to transport you to your room?"

"I can manage, thanks, Loki. And call me Bruce, okay?"

"Goodnight to you then, Bruce," Loki said pleasantly. The shadows didn't lift, but at the same time, Loki didn't seem in any way angry. A little sad, possibly--or maybe "nostalgic" was a better word.

Bruce gave Tony a shoulder-pat in passing, smiled a little blearily at Loki, and shambled off to bed.

"At times," Loki said, "Your friend reminds me of a small and friendly bear."

"Really? Like Pooh, or like Paddington?"

"Like Paddington, I suppose, as the more intelligent of the two."

"Exactly how many times have you visited Midgard, Lok?

"Several, and always in absolute defiance of the Allfather's edicts, though for the most part I've made use of certain resources in order to obtain books. Volumes of magic aside, the books of Asgard can be tedious. Their heroes are always so... heroic."

"Amazon delivers to Asgard? Who knew?"

"Yes, certainly," Loki answered, straight-faced. "We also once supported a Starbucks on every corner of the Golden City, prior to its destruction."

"Okay, now this I have to know... where did you hear about Starbucks? Wait--was it from Clint? You pumped him for military secrets and the whereabouts of conveniently-located coffee shops?"

"You are ridiculous," Loki informed him, laughing again, and teleported them both to Tony's room.

Even punchy with sleep-deprivation, the god managed to get undressed and redressed in his night clothes without the effort of actually doing anything the hard way. His daytime clothes even folded themselves neatly and landed in a tidy stack on the room's one chair.

Tony, on the other hand, stripped off his jeans and t-shirt and left them lying on the floor like the sweaty, disgusting things they were. He considered going to bed without bothering to clean his teeth, but the enthusiastic brushing sounds coming from the bathroom guilted him out of his laziness. By the time he stood side-by-side with Loki at the too-small basin, their shoulders brushing now and then, he felt glad he hadn't slacked.

For one thing, he would have missed seeing Loki's toothbrush, which was truly a magnificent work of art, unlike his own sad, plastic, bought-in-a-tenpack model.

For another, doing such a mundane task together, crowded over the undersized sink, just felt so ordinary, and so companionable, as if they could move on from there to do any number of the other ordinary, companionable things that went into two people building up a life together.

Tony hadn't realized he'd stopped brushing, standing there with his mouth still foamy with toothpaste as he contemplated these thoughts, until Loki gave him a gentle nudge.

"Delightful as it is to consider our mutual future," said the god of good dental hygiene, no excuses, "I find the fact that you appear rabid while doing so more than slightly unnerving."

Loki had a point, Tony had to admit, and so he spat into the sink, rinsed his toothbrush, rinsed his mouth and was ready for bed.

"No eating utensils tonight, please?" Loki murmured. "I'd like to look at you."

"Sorry as I am to lose my big little spoon, I'd like to look at you too." Despite the not-exactly-oversized bed and Loki's not-inconsiderable height, they managed to get themselves situated fairly easily, pulling the warm duvet over themselves in place of the dispirited covers the room had come with.

Face-to-face in this cave of shared warmth, Tony stroked back Loki's hair, now released from its braids and curlier than ever. It might be too soon to declare his love for the god himself, but he openly loved Loki's crazy hair, and vowed that it would only experience the best of hair-care products from here on out, never again whatever shit they used in Asgard, that made it look weird.

"You thought my hair looked weird?" Loki asked, puffing a floaty strand away from his face. Tony decided a change in subject might be in order.

"All night, while Bruce and I were working, I kept glancing up, thinking I'd see you, then remembering you'd gone to Norway. I was actually jealous of Norway. That's not typical."

"I was truly sorry to leave you."

"Trust me, I realize and accept why you did. Your brother looked like he was on the point of meltdown. Had he even processed you being gone, and now back again?"

"Not in the least. Thor can be--though it may astound you to hear--at times surprisingly sensitive. I'd always thought he considered me an annoyance or, at best, an obligation. Now it seems that was never the case, and while I felt envious, frequently, of him, he also felt envious of me. Truly, my world-view lies in tatters. I'm not entirely certain what to make of the shift in my perceptions."

"Sleep on it, maybe, and share your thoughts in the morning?"

"You're wise..." Loki began, then dropped off into dreamland, just like that.

Nearly an hour later, when Tony still couldn't sleep, but could enjoy letting his eyes and his body rest, and having the warm weight of someone he cared about in his arms, Loki woke up suddenly to ask, "What was the purpose of thebrenglaður strokka in your workshop?"

"The what what? Sorry, Lok, but I totally didn't catch that.

"The brenglaður strokka made of light, that hovered half over the table, half inside Bruce." Loki made a hand gesture that looked like he, for some unknown reason, was miming a surfboard catching a wave. "The... Oh! the Möbius strip? That's what it's called?"

"You got it, babe."

"But what's it for?" Loki cupped his right hand and it filled with green flame, sending shadows leaping all over the walls. Like most Loki-made shadows, they never seemed to arise from anything actually standing in the room.

 "I had this idea," Tony said, propping himself up on one elbow. "Maybe it isn't a case of not enough power, because you and your bro between you seem to have plenty. Maybe it's making better use of the power you have, channeling it, reusing it, not letting the leftovers fly off into the great unknown so that you have to recharge your batteries each time."

"My... batteries?" Loki asked, looking perplexed.

"Your secret fount of magicness, whatever it's called."

"My seiðr , which takes power from my body and from the Universe?"

"All right, then. Sure. Let's assume the Universe has its part covered, right? That leaves your body for me to be concerned about, especially considering that I like your body, and would rather not see it tapped out, or weakened in any way. I'd much rather drink champagne and do a dance of celebration after all this is over, not worry about what we've done to you."

Loki didn't say anything to that, and Tony couldn't tell if his face wore a strange expression, or if it was a trick of the green light.

"How many trips do you think we'll need? One back to Wakanda, off with Big T's head, undo the snap, then home again?"

"No, Tony," Loki answered quietly.

"No? What do you want to do then, reassemble the stones individually and make our own fancy glove? Is that just for the sake of being complicated, or do you have a good reason?"

Loki extinguished the green flame and turned over onto his back. "It's been a punishingly long day, Tony."

"I recognize that what I just said, and how I just said it, may not have been the most tactful. That's kind of a characteristic of mine, if you hadn't noticed before this."

"Part of your charm, I might say." Loki pushed his fingers deep into his hair, the heels of his hands covering his eyes. "It's necessary for you to understand the nature of time."

"You mean, like, squash a bug in the past and when you return to the future we all have lizard feet?"

"Nornir, no!" Loki laughed. "That would be utterly nonsensical."

"Then what?"

"Imagine this: we return to that exact moment of the past at which my brother failed to kill Thanos. This time he succeeds, we take the gauntlet and half the Universe is never snapped into nothingness. Congratulations! We've done absolutely nothing to change our own branch of the World Tree, but the branch we've created by our actions will almost certainly be thankful they need never defeat the Mad Titan."

"So every trip we make solves nothing, it only splits time to run in two different directions--ours and an unknown timeline we've made by doing something in the past?"

"Precisely."

"That sucks." Tony joined the god in lying flat on the mattress, staring up at the shadowy ceiling. "So nothing we do is any good, really?"

"We can't erase Thanos's work, no. However, we may borrow the stones, bring them forward in time, make our own wish to undo his, then return them to the moment of taking."

"Uh, yays? That sounds... uh... easy."

"It may certainly be achievable. Only the Soul Stone requires extra thought before it may be obtained. Your device to prevent the wastage of energy sounds extremely promising."

"Now you're only humoring me."

"Not at all," Loki answered, with utmost sincerity.

Tony just wasn't sure he believed him.

Chapter Text

Warm and supremely comfortable, especially as compared to his days all-but-dead in space aboard the Jolly Ship Nebula, Tony felt fairly sure he was still dreaming when Loki kissed his temple and gave his shoulder a light squeeze. He barely managed to garble out something along the lines of "Where... go... you...?"

Loki laughed softly, "Sleep deeply and dream no dreams, hjarta minn. We have unfinished--though most likely also entirely unnecessary--business ahead. I'll see you when you wake again."

The dream (if that's what it was) went on to include the sound of a door opening, then shutting, both so quietly Tony couldn't actually be sure he heard them at all.

A few words of Asgardese followed, first in Loki's silky murmur, next in Thor's totally unwhispery whisper, that somehow seemed to cross over the border into loudness no matter how the god of thunder tried to keep his personal volume control turned low. Loki said something else--in English, Tony guessed, identifying his native tongue more by the cadence of whatever the god had said than by anything else, since he couldn't make out any actual words. A woman's voice answered, angry-sounding, though (maybe) not actually angry, her syllables rattling out like hailstones.

Nebula's voice, Tony thought. Nebula's, not Natasha's.

Which made sense. Why, after all, would Natasha be talking to the Brodinsons in the corridor outside his room?

Hey, wait guys! he wanted to call out, on the principle that, even in dreams, clandestine hallway meetings between anyone usually didn't lead to anything good. What are you up to?

He couldn't speak, though, because a drowsiness more profound than any he'd experienced in his fifty(ish) years of life caught hold of him, pulling him inexorably deeper into sleep.

Once there, he dreamed stupid dreams. In the first one, he'd been magically turned into a burrito, and after struggling and struggling to move his tortilla-encased body, he turned to Loki, pleading to be released from his floury wrapping.

"Don't be ridiculous," Loki answered. "This is merely sleep-paralysis. Or possibly the bed-clothes entangling your legs. You'll soon be able to move again."

All of which sounded perfectly reasonable though, at the same time, at least partially untrue.

From there, he dropped into a somewhat more macabre dream of being a nineteenth century sailor who'd died at sea, and who was now being stitched into his own hammock (by the ship's sailmaker, his subconscious helpfully informed him). This sailmaker was just preparing to make sure he was really dead by pushing his last stitch through Tony's nose, when Tony decided that enough was enough, and not only were both dreams ridiculous, they both contained a common theme of him not being able to move, or go anywhere, or do anything.

Fuck, Loki, what did you do? he called out to the god of probably ditching him for his own damn good. What are you up to? Where the fuck are you going?

Nothing that need concern you, hjarta minn, Loki answered soothingly. A little chore for my brother, Nebula and myself. As I've said, most likely pointless, but there you are--i's must be dotted and t's crossed. We three ought to return well before noon-time.

I know where you're going, Tony shot back, because he did, with that sense of absolute knowing he only ever felt in dreams, when during his waking hours, whatever anyone else thought, he tended to be more of a layer cake of self-doubt with a decorative fondant covering of mostly-feigned self-assurance. Don't pretend to yourself that I haven't figured it out. Genius here, y'know.

I do know, my impetuous friend, Loki answered--but underneath the obvious humor of that statement lay something strained, and more than a little sad.

Lightning flashed behind Tony's eyelids, despite the room's total lack of windows, and that was that. He had seconds to miss Loki's presence in his head before it surged back, more powerful than ever, but missing some of the quick lightness he associated with the god's usual way of thinking.

His eyes--Loki's eyes, really--blinked in sudden, strong, pinkish-gold light.

Tony, you've followed? the god exclaimed, not sounding angry, just monumentally surprised. Nornir, have I let you draw so close? How very unlike me!

Hey, I remember this, Tony said, not knowing exactly how much of that last statement he'd been meant to overhear.

He'd visited this place before, also through Loki's sight, though this time he felt absolutely present, absolutely there, slipped into Loki's consciousness the way he'd slip into one of his suits. The sun felt punishingly hot against the god's blue skin, and the wind carried complicated smells, reminding Tony of the spices that go into a good curry: ginger and cumin, green cardamom pods, coriander and pepper. The heavy heads of the plants he'd seen in his previous Loki-generated vision, the ones that reminded him of thistles and prickly pears, tapped insistently against his thighs, stirred by a hot, dry breeze.

He felt Thor's presence, and Nebula's, just behind him, with senses his usual self didn't possess.

Lok? Tony said.

The god didn't answer.

Seriously, Loki, what's up? Tony couldn't quite hold back the thought that followed, which was, You know, you could have taken me with voluntarily. Or at least shared your plans?

This journey is pointless, and foolish, and I refuse to risk your life needlessly, Loki answered, sounding tired, and a little bitter.

This is the ghost of a ghost thing, right? The thing your dad set up?

Spirit of a ghost, Loki corrected. His hand went to his throat, fingertips brushing the bare skin just above the heavily-reinforced leather of his collar. Even knowing what I know, I never believed...

What's that, Loki?

That the Titan would be so easy for me to find. That I would feel him in the marrow of my bones.

He'd changed back into his old Asgardian armor, Tony realized, all green, black and gold, layer upon layer of thick leather, all far too warm for the climate. He hoped that wasn't a bad omen (not that he believed in omens), or worse, some kind of indication that Loki, on some level, had already admitted defeat.

Not at all, the god answered, a brittle edge to his mental voice. It's so hard to know what to wear to meet one's murderer, though I think I display a certain style.

"Brother..." Thor said, in a rumbling growl.

Loki turned to the god of thunder, alarm shooting through his mind and Tony's simultaneously.

Thor looked like a deity balanced on the edge of total mental breakdown, sweating and shaking, grief, rage, terror and shame all at war for dominant expression on his usually handsome face.

"Thor. Thor." Loki took that face between his long, slim hands, wiping away a wetness that wasn't all sweat, Tony realized.

"Brother, you can't avenge my death," Loki told him, with unusual gentleness, all the laughter missing, for once, from his voice. "Neither do I require you to do so. What happens here today won't bring back Heimdall, or even one of our people. It won't erase the memories, or the fear. I've told you that the Stones are already broken, and that is true, Thor. The Titan is no more now than an old, mad, decrepit beast, and his death today, by our hands, will change nothing of what was, or what will be. If you must have Thanos dead, and revenge of a sort, then consider that he's harmed Nebula more than any. Allow her to do the deed."

Thor's eyes clenched shut, and his knuckles turned bone-white as they gripped the twisted handle of his ridiculous World of Warcraft weapon. "I m-must..." he stammered out. "Brother, I must..."

"Believe me, if I thought it would help, you'd have my blessing." Loki rested his hands on Thor's shoulders, then bent forward a little to kiss his brother's forehead.

"He took everything from me, Loki. Everything."

"Come now, that's giving him a bit more credit than he deserves, don't you think? Your sister, and my presumed mother, should be allowed her due in our losses."

"Loki," Thor rasped. "Always making jokes."

"What else?" Loki answered, with a grin Tony knew he didn't really feel. "Consider this also, bróðir minn--of what did I assure you?"

"That the sun would shine on us again," Thor mumbled.

"And, look, here it shines," Loki told him. "You really ought to have more faith in me, now and then."

"I'm not afraid," Thor answered, now smile-crying in a way Tony doubted anyone present found encouraging. "I could kill him. I could."

"I have no doubts whatsoever," Loki said, brushing his fingers lightly across his brother's forehead. Thor's eyes closed, and green light shimmered, chrysalis-like, all around the god of thunder's body.  "The thing is, Thor, you don't need to do so. Let me take care of this one small duty, as a small recompense for the many, many years of aggravation I've given you."

Are you going to live to regret this? Tony asked.

No, Loki answered crisply, I am not. And you, hjarta minn, could also show some slight confidence in my abilities. I'm not entirely useless.

Never said you were, babe.

Very well, then. Loki stretched out his hand toward Nebula, who'd been waiting, silent and tense the whole time. "Lady, will you come with me?"

She gave a single terse nod and took the hand he offered, her fingers gripping hard, almost painfully, as they vanished.

A horrible upside-down and inside-out spinning sensation gripped them, a feeling like being inside one of the suits if every single gyro had failed in one fell swoop. When the world finally held still again, and Tony at last overcame the overwhelmingly weird feeling of experiencing a nearly-irresistible need to puke while at the same time being 90% detached from his own body.

Are you quite finished? Loki asked him.

Yeah. Ugh. I think.

My apologies, then, Loki said. The gravitation forces of this world are peculiar, to say the least, and the lines of magnetism should by no means be mentioned.

Loki's teleport must have moved them several miles down the proverbial road. Right to Thanos's doorstep, in fact, because there was the cozy-woodland-cabin-minus-the-woods.

The door opened without being touched--the god of useful breaking-and-entering skills's doing again, Tony had no doubt. Beyond it lay a rustic interior with candlelight and firelight, filled with a warm, savory odor like simmering soup.

Whatever Tony might have expected Thanos's getaway home to smell like--the tears of the vanquished and the blood of the slain immediately sprang to mind--he wouldn't have guessed soup, not in a thousand years.

Yum! he said dryly, still feeling faintly nauseated, in the same strange, disembodied way. 

I'm tempted to taste it, Loki quipped. It doesn't smell bad, precisely.

No kisses for you if you do, Tony countered. You know it's probably made out of babies and virgins.

Very well, then, the god answered. I shall have to restrain my curiosity, just this once, and go to my grave not knowing the level of the Mad Titan's culinary skills.

A little less talk about 'going to my grave,' please and thank you?

I must admit, it may be a little soon for me to jest about such things, as well.

Loki prowled soundlessly around the Titan's rustic abode, a place that reminded Tony, weirdly, of the dwarfs' cottage from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937 Disney version, only huge. He could easily have imagined cheery blue songbirds twittering around Loki's shoulders instead of a blue cyborg waiting, silent and tense, in the shadows.

 No sign of the Stones? Tony asked.

The Stones are gone, as I've said, Loki answered grumpily. Forget them for now.

Okay, then, how about this, Lok? You told Thor that Grapey McGrapeface was "decrepit." How decrepit are we talking here? You're not planning something selfless and noble, I hope?

I? Loki scoffed. You wound me, Tony.

Scoff away, god of... what was it? Oh, that's right! Lies. wasn't it? Truth up, Loki. Inquiring minds want to know. You're not planning to take on one of the most powerful beings in the Universe, even if he's having a bad day, using only a cranky cyborg and your own charm and good looks?

As Harald Hardrade would say--or perhaps had said to him--"Ill is the result of letting fear rule thine actions."

Who the hell is Harald Hardrade?

A Northman. Loki shrugged. He had his own saga, so he must have been important once, wouldn't you think?

No idea. And "letting fear rule thine actions" and "having a workable plan" are kinda two different things, my sweet blueberry. Not to be harsh, Lok, but I've seen one of your plans in action. It didn't appear to go well.

No, hjarta minn, you observed one of my plans going exactly as I intended, minimizing the loss of Midgardian life and freeing me from enthrallment. Now, be still. I need to concentrate.

"He's approaching!" Nebula hissed. "He's almost here!"

Loki gave her a quick flash of smile before extending his hands into... nothing? A place, anyway, that Tony, having not a magical bone in his body, perceived only as a tingling cold that, oddly, left a lemony taste on his tongue.

Loki's hands emerged holding what looked like a smallish antique box with swirly pewter fittings, made of stained glass in a shade of blue that matched Loki's skin almost perfectly. A pleasant glow, reminiscent of the Tesseract, shone through on every side.

Loki?

What can I tell you, except that I have a fascination with glowing blue boxes? the god answered, in his best mental, "Don't bother the grown-ups, dear" voice. This is the Casket of Ancient Winters. I reclaimed it as my own--for it is mine, if it's anyone's--along with Surtur's head, the Head of Mimir, and a few other oddments, as I left Odin's Vault, where all but one of his stolen relics were kept. 

Loki pulled in a deep breath, at the same time pushing back some of the bitterness that went along with that statement.

I'm left wondering how many heads and glowy boxes your un-dad kept in there, Lok, and picturing something between Bluebeard and a UPS Store.

Like neither, or like both, perhaps, Loki told him. And, hjarta minn, I see what you attempt for me. Be assured, however, that it's scarcely necessary. You've nothing to fear, Tony, either from or for me.

You get wordy when you're nervous, huh? 

As do you.

Fair enough, Tony laughed, and Loki laughed with him.

The silence that followed felt close, warm, loving--closer, warmer, and more loving, really, than anything Tony had ever felt, which only served to make him more scared.

Loki, it appeared, chose to ignore any and all such emotions and get straight down to business. He nodded to Nebula, who shifted slightly in her concealed space near the door, shivering as a cloud of green, alight like the decorative box Loki called the Casket of Ancient Winters, spread from the top of her head, down her neck, shoulders and arms, then onward and outward, until every inch of her face and body had been covered, leaving her a shimmering blue-green, like some creature of the ocean, some humanoid version of the lionfish with two sharp swords in place of barbed fins.

For Nebula's protection, Tony, Loki informed him. Strong as she is, she can't tolerate the cold that will come, as I can. You could not bear that same cold for more than an instant.

Is that my cue to stop feeling mad that you left me behind on Midgard?

Loki, being Loki, let that comment pass without acknowledging its existence.

Such a simple thing... Loki set the box on a small, roughly-constructed table, orienting it to face the cabin door. So small and delicately-made, to contain the might and the hopes of an entire people. And the Allfather...

With exquisite care, Loki raised the Casket's lid, staring into its bright depths like someone deeply hypnotized.

'The Allfather' what, Lok?

The glow brightened, and as Loki's long fingers encircled the Casket, that light spread up his hands, in much the same way the green had covered Nebula.

The Allfather sent me here to die, as a distraction, once more, to buy Thor time, just as... Loki watched silvery frost race across the table, up every stair and down every railing, then out and across the plain, plank floor. Just as on the Statesman. He intended my life to end. I brought this, a weapon only I could use, instead.

The fire went out then, and the candles, but even without them the cabin stayed bright, the mellow golden light of that planet turned sharp and cold now by all the ice around them.

In the heart of that sudden chill stood Loki, his hands full of blue-green flame and his long hair spiky with frost.

Tony heard laughter, then, deep and rasping. "My former ally, is it? The little prince without a home? You do know I've ruined Jötunnheim also, don't you, Loki Laufeyson? That too few of your kind remain there now to defend themselves against the wild, or to survive beyond this generation? To tell the truth, between your accomplishments there, and Odin Borson's, not much work was left for me."

Loki didn't answer him directly, just stood with his right hand outstretched as Thanos dragged himself, ponderous and ungainly, up from his doorstep and into his frozen home.

The god, always unpredictable (and, Tony had determined, slightly poetry-obsessed), murmured under his breath:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Thanos had been an ugly bastard when Tony last saw him on Titan, and events since then didn't seem to have done him many favors. He wore no big gold gauntlet on his right hand now, and the flesh and bone once covered by the Evil Glove of Destiny resembled nothing more than the burned-out remains of a tree left standing after a forest fire. The purple flesh up that arm--in fact, all up his right side--looked rotted, like a Halloween pumpkin left forgotten on the porch late into November, jags of red, deep green and mustard yellow running in fissures all through the bruise-colored skin. 

"'Half sunk, a shattered visage lies,'" Loki quoted, in a tone almost certainly intended to annoy, looking down his nose at the Titan as well as anyone could do, faced with a person several feet taller than himself. Whatever the god of mischief and sass lacked in height, he at least made up in attitude. "'Whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.'

"Yes, I definitely see the 'shattered visage,'" he commented, "And 'the sneer of cold command.' For 'lip' perhaps we could substitute 'wrinkled chin.' Indeed you do, too, look close to 'lifeless.' Recent endeavors took a bit much out of you, did they?"

"Poor Prince Loki," Thanos answered, sneering as best he could with his ruined face, "Have you crawled back out of your grave for this? To haunt me with your presence? To mock me? To take my life? To regain the Stones? You are deluded."

"No," Loki answered. "I know the Stones are gone, and your life means less to me than mine once did to you. I'd originally thought to make you suffer a little, because I do have it in me, now and then, to be cruel." He raised his hand a little higher, and despite the fire cupped in his palm, those long, blue fingers now appeared nearly frozen. "Honestly, I find myself, at this point in time, not caring one way or another. So, yes, feel quite free to taunt me if you like. Make a speech, but forgive me if I don't linger to listen. I've spent enough of my days, already, listening to the rantings of power-mad old men." 

From the god's outstretched hand, in that moment, shot a thin, sharp javelin of ice, one that took the unprepared Titan full in the belly, throwing him back, pinned fast, against one of the rough-cut timbers that framed the door.

Thanos touched the ice, then his own abdomen, gaping at Loki with an almost bewildered expression, as Nebula surged forward from her hiding place, roaring her fury, her two swords ready in her hands.

The swords flashed as she screamed out an entire life's worth of pain and betrayal, and purple blood, thick as syrup, bubbled out onto the frosty whiteness.

The body of the Mad Titan stood, headless and frozen, already half-covered in ice-crystals, just inside his own doorway.

"Nothing beside remains," Loki said, in a voice cold and dry as Antarctica. "Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away."

For sands, he added, sounding more like his normal self, Substitute a vast field of frost-shriveled plant-life, species unknown.

"How do you fare, Lady?" he asked Nebula then, aloud, in a voice as kind as Tony had ever heard from him.

Nebula only shook her head, her face dotted with the Titan's dark, sticky blood, the implant over her left eye lighted up, blind and bright as the lens of a projector.

"Enough, then," Loki concluded, and shut the Casket.

Tony heard and saw nothing more, except for a drift of words that came to him some dark, immense time later.

I told you... I told you it all would be meaningless. 

Chapter Text


Tony woke up to Bruce's voice, with Bruce himself, in the fully-clothed and ready-to-face-the-day flesh, standing at the open door to his quarters. "Just so you know, Tone, it's nearly 10:30. Also, Steve's making pancakes and calling them Sunday brunch. I said I'd deliver the message. Message delivered?"

"Nothing personal, but... don't care," Tony responded, wondering how he'd managed to sleep something like 7+ hours, well past his usual limit, and still feel like he'd been up for days.

He'd dreamed about... something? Something not-good, or something strange. So completely strange, in fact, that...

"I was a burrito," he told Bruce, despite knowing that wasn't it, not what he'd meant to talk about at all, that he was choosing to run his mouth because sometimes running his mouth helped him chase down a thought, or a memory, that he couldn't quite catch hold of through the ordinary process of sitting still and just letting his brain untangle the problem. "I couldn't get unwrapped, which I needed to do because..."

Bruce crossed his arms over his chest, giving Tony one of his his frowny faces (the "deep in concentration" version, rather than the "mad as fuck and about to lose it" edition), the way he often did in place of asking him flat-out what the hell he was talking about. 

"You see my point?" Tony asked.

"What point is that, Tone?" Bruce's "what the hell?" look appeared to be ramping up to his "what the actual hell?" look, which really meant that his ScienceBro thought Tony needed to calm the fuck down and stop talking like a crazy person. That Bruce, in fact, might actually prefer conversation to rambling.

"The point at which you look sad about my burritohood and tell me, 'This is the fate that awaits hapless mortals who sleep with gods of mischief.'"

"Ah, that point. The one I won't be making. Speaking of gods of mischief, though, where is Loki?  I haven't seen him or Thor all morning. Or Nebula, for that matter, though she tends to be a little more elusive."

Tony felt his eyes widen. "Oh..." he breathed, the StarkImage page inside his head suddenly full of frost and green fire, a glowy blue box and blood like...

"What do you think they're, uh, up to?" Bruce asked.

"Like melted grape jelly," Tony muttered, feeling less desirous of Steve's gut-bomb pancakes than at any time in their entire acquaintance.

Bruce appeared to find that statement so far out in left field he didn't even have a facial expression to match up with it.

"They went... They went looking for Thanos." Tony floundered a little on the almost-too-comfortable mattress, finally managed to kick back the duvet, and swung his legs around, the better to sit on the edge of his bed. The floor felt even colder than usual beneath his unprepared toes, and what he'd really have liked above all else would have been just to crawl back under the covers and forget that such things as mornings even existed.

"Why, though?" Bruce's eyes had also widened dramatically. "That's kinda... I mean..."

"Damned if I know, exactly. For Thor, I guess, to give him a do-over? Or for Nebula. God knows she has a legitimate motive. Loki said it was pointless, though, for reasons that seemed to start up kind of a cliche war in my head between letting sleeping dogs lie and... what's that other one? The one with carts, and horses, and a barn door?"

"I'm pretty sure the cart belongs to a different cliche," Bruce informed him. "My Aunt Susan used to say, 'It's no good shutting the stable door after your horse has bolted.' Or words to that effect." 

"That's the one. My mostly-asleep burrito-self might have been slightly unclear as to the nuances of what Loki was trying to tell me." Tony caught Bruce's gaze, holding it as firmly as he could, given his own confusion and recently-awakened status. "Keeping in mind that I totally understand any and all skepticism..."

"Which exists," Bruce acknowledged.

"Keeping in mind, also, that I may not always be the greatest judge of either truthfulness or human nature..."

"Or alien nature. Is that even a thing?"

"Could we maybe say 'Asgardian' or something, instead of 'alien?' 'Alien' makes me feel like I'm sleeping with a Xenomorph."

Bruce laughed, proving that it's always good to have suitably geeky friends. He also appreciated his ScienceBro not letting loose with the first thing that popped into his head, which probably was something along the lines of, "There's a difference?"

"And yes, I'm fully aware of the whole 'god of lies' thing, but I got zero sense that this was anything Loki initiated, more like it was an, 'okay, bro, if this is what it takes to make you feel better' situation. Not sure if you noticed, but Thor hasn't been his shiny-best godly self."

The weird shit Tony had dreamed or, more accurately, witnessed, had started coming back to him, one puzzle piece slotting into the next, into the next, the picture as a whole becoming increasingly clear: Thor's meltdown, and the frost, Nebula and her swords, Loki's, "Goblin King, you have no power over me" speech.

Thanos pinned, all confuddled, with Loki's slim, deadly ice-spear sticking out of his belly.

"He's like my dad," Bruce said suddenly.

"Uh..." Tony stared at him. "Thor is...?"

"Not Thor. Thanos. He breaks you down, and breaks you down, and then finds that one thing, that one area you missed, or where you screwed up, and he makes that one thing stand for your entire life, for all you are, or ever could be. So the rest of us can say, 'Okay, yes, Thor, you had a great weapon, and maybe you should have aimed for the head, but you weren't exactly alone in Wakanda. If you failed, well, so did we all'--only he doesn't see things that way. Which is worse, do you think, to be raised believing you're a loser who can't ever succeed, or to grow up believing you're that hero who's supposed to win every single time?"

"I'd say they both suck," Tony answered--or started to, because somewhere between "both" and "suck," what sounded like the mother of all lightning-strikes zapped the compound, followed by a rumble of thunder so intense and prolonged the entire building shook for what felt like a space of several minutes.

It probably wasn't that long, objectively speaking, but it in the manner of any number of scary events, it sure felt that way.

What followed after--that was, after the thunder, and also after a sound like someone rage-bowling down the center of the common area--Tony first wanted to class as an argument.

Only, raised voices aside, it wasn't that. Arguments could be lost or won. Nobody, he knew, could win this.

"Brother. Brother," Loki said, and maybe Tony's long-ago Shakespeare in the Park quip hadn't been so far off after all, because for a guy not in any way raising his voice to yell, the Lokester certainly was projecting to the back rafters. As in, beet farmers in upstate New Jersey could probably catch every pristine, British-accented word. "There is no shame to this, Thor. No shame. Be still."

Thor--not projecting, just louder than hell, beyond even his usual levels--bellowed something in return. Maybe English. Maybe not. Tony literally couldn't tell, because Thor had clearly left behind his usual manly eye-leaking during times of strong emotion and headed deep, deep into the scary Realm of the Ugly Cry, his voice all clotted up with snot and tears.

Tony and Bruce traded looks, both clearly wondering, Do we go out there or do we barricade ourselves inside by moving all heavy objects in front of the door? 

Tony! 

He found himself wincing, what with Loki's mental voice being cranked up well past 10 in his head.

Jesus Christ, babe, take it down a notch, please?

Better? The volume dropped, though Loki's mental tone maintained a semi-ominous grumble, its own sort of approaching thunder, that was in no way either typical or comforting.

Much, Tony answered, wanting, at the very least, to sound supportive. Sorry to ask. I know you had kind of a night. Day, I guess, where you were.

Indeed. Loki managed to fill that single word with a whole world of emotion. I had to arrange our transport, Tony. Travel via hand-held Bifrost seems appealing--until one has to channel that force, which is in nearly every way disruptive to my own seiðr. Ask Banner...

Clint's voice interrupted whatever Loki intended to say next. "Holy fuck, at least put down a newspaper! People eat there!"

"Is that really...?" Steve put in, managing to convey galaxies worth of surprise and disgust into those three words.

"I'd imagine, Nebula, that they've now seen sufficient proof," Loki said, all calm and in control--outwardly, that was. His inner voice had sounded like the aftereffects of ten double espressos and a gram of coke. "If I may?"

A huge WHOOSH sounded, as if someone had just lit up the biggest gas stove in the Universe, Nebula adding to the noise with what Tony could only class as a war-cry, the purest distillation he'd ever heard (or, really, was ever likely to hear) of the sentiment of, Ha, I got you, you bastard!

Nebula seems to have found that satisfying, Loki quipped inside Tony's head. I believe it's safe to come out. However, if you'd ask Banner whether, amongst his nostrums, he might find something of a tranquilizing nature that would work upon my brother, I'd be most appreciative.

Amongst his nostrums? Seriously, Lok, how tired are you?

Call forth the Bronx Zoo, then, to shoot him with an elephant tranquilizer. Anything. I'm tired nearly unto the point of madness, and his loudness, at this moment, is more than my mind can comfortably bear--certainly more than my brother may bear at this time. His thoughts are dark, Tony, and filled with despair, and at this moment I feel both my concentration and spirit of patience insufficient to help him. Also, he seems to be crackling, which, electrically speaking, may not bode well for either this dwelling or the health of those of us who don't, by nature, channel lightning from the heavens.

After a pause, he added, I'd believed, if only he saw me again...

The thought, whatever it had been, trailed off into nothing, and for the first time since their relationship changed, Loki sounded not only beat, but at the end of his rope in pretty much every way.

I'll ask Bruce, don't worry, Tony assured him, before turning to his ScienceBro.

"Do we have anything at all, medicinally, that would take down Thor?" Tony whispered to Bruce, with no real idea what even made him whisper.

"A gallon or two of Everclear and a sledgehammer?"

"That's your idea of medicinal? A little help here, Bruce. Loki's worried about his bro, which in turn makes me worried."

"You remember running those experiments. It's hard enough to get a needle through his thick Asgardian skin, and anything we have here, even in mega-doses, his body just treats as something Thor needs to be healed from. Other than large amounts of alcohol, or very specifically targeted Deep Brain Stimulation, nothing affects the guy. How serious are we talking here? Imminent danger to himself and others, or Loki being Loki?"

Do thank Dr. Banner for his 'help,' Loki put in, his mental tone the very definition of "scathing." I wasn't aware his position as Team Healer included only Midgardians.

C'mon, Lok.

Excuse my pique. I truly am weary. That, however, isn't your fault. Loki gave something like a mental sigh. Mother was so much better than I at healing that went beyond the physical. I wish...

He didn't complete that thought either, just abruptly dropped their connection.

"So I'm now on Loki's Naughty List?" Bruce asked.

"It's not that," Tony answered, pulling on sweats and a t-shirt. "Wanna go see if the severed head of Thanos is still burning merrily on our conference table? 'Cause I'm pretty sure that's what's going on out there at this very moment. Might be interesting."

"Seriously?" Bruce gave him an incredulous look. "No, Tony, seriously?"

"Never a dull moment," Tony answered cheerfully.

Deep down, though, he wasn't exactly overflowing with mirth and good humor. The situation with their resident gods worried him, and not just because future plans seemed to require them to show up for the game in a big way. 

Maybe it was partly Loki's influence, partly having half of all life snapped into oblivion, but he'd started to genuinely care about Point Break. Not just as his big, goofy teammate with the funny speech patterns and hammer obsession, but as an actual person with strengths and weaknesses and sometimes, also--like right now--huge, unmanageable feelings too complex for him to process.

Tony frequently wished he didn't know how that felt, but he did, and since he did know, he felt an obligation.

My previous behavior... Loki said softly in his head. His tone sounded contrite, and maybe it wasn't exactly a normal apology with, like, actual words, but it was a Loki apology, and that was enough for Tony. I managed to quiet him.

It's okay, babe, he answered. I'd have liked to help more. Or at all, I guess.

Loki let out a weary flutter of laughter.

You do help, he said. Knowing... Loki's thoughts drifted off so thoroughly Tony half wondered if he'd fallen asleep.

I've often felt... the god added, then left that hanging too.

I've gotta know, Lok--did Nebula actually bring back Thanos's head, and did you actually set it on fire? On our conference table?

Another tired little flutter. She thought proof might be required, and so brought proof. I merely calculated what would best irritate your compatriots. The flame, and its fuel, are nearly burned away to nothing now, and the table beneath not even scarred.

Reaching the end of the hall, Tony saw the truth of that statement: whatever had burned there had diminished to nothing more than a small, blackened lump with a crown of green flame.

More green shone between the fingers of Loki's left hand, which rested on his brother's forehead. Thor sprawled on the big red couch, deeply asleep and motionless except for the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. His head lay in Loki's lap.

Tony went to the god of not being in any way a bad bro after all, standing behind him and first resting his hands on Loki's shoulders, then rubbing them gently, trying to ease the painfully tight muscles as much as he could. Loki sighed, his head falling back against Tony's thighs.

"You should rest too," Tony told him.

"I will," Loki answered, his thumb stroking over his brother's forehead, up into Thor's close-cropped hair, then down to his eyebrows. "In a little. I want to see him well and truly settled."

"Quieted," he added, after a second or two passed.

"I missed you," Tony said. He bent to press an upside-down kiss to the top of Loki's head.

"You were with me as I traveled."

"Pretty much."

"You stayed with me, through all that transpired. That was... unexpected."

"It won't be. Eventually," Tony said.

He thought he knew, really, how most of Loki's unfinished phrases ended.

I've often felt... alone. I've often felt... no place existed for me, anywhere. No safety. No haven. No Realm where I didn't feel different, and wrong.

Give a god a bad name and he'll live up to it.

"I'm glad you're home, Loki," Tony told him. "I don't mean, necessarily, the Avengers' Compound."

"No, not necessarily the Compound," Loki answered. "But safely home, again, with you."

 

Chapter Text

Even after the Thanos McNugget had been carried outside with barbecue tongs, the better to crumble (appropriately) into so much dust over the rain-soaked grass of the courtyard and eventually (if there was any justice in the Universe) be washed into a convenient gutter, absolutely no one seemed inclined to take their latest brainstorming session over to the conference table. Since Thor was currently snoring thunderously on the longer of the red couches, and Loki making a point of being unwilling to leave his brother unsupervised, the red sofa lounge became, by default, their new meeting area.

Clint, Tony couldn't help but notice, failed to be in attendance. More surprisingly, Rhodey also appeared to be missing, and hadn't even mentioned that he'd be leaving. As many times as Tony tried telling himself, "It is what it is," he still couldn't claim that didn't sting. Rhodey had been his friend, dammit--was his friend--and now, it seemed, that wasn't even worth a passing word? 

He gazed out over the assembled group, composed now of the founding Avengers--minus one--their original adversary, a cyborg, and a talking raccoon, a situation that to Tony sounded like the start of some strange, surreal joke: "A Norse god, a cyborg and a talking raccoon walk into a bar..."

Nothing whatsoever, naturally, against talking raccoons. At least Thor's "Sweet Rabbit" remained conscious and coherent, which was more than could be said for a certain god of thunder.

Considering, though, that Loki shot him a stern look the moment that particular thought popped into his head, Tony informed himself that the time had come to keep to himself any and all further judgments against Thor or, really, anyone else. They weren't wanted, they weren't needed, and they weren't appreciated.

"It's well that you do so," the god informed him haughtily--an attitude that backfired a little, considering that Tony totally couldn't help but find Loki, when he climbed up on his high horse and got all protective of his big bro, still utterly charming.

You know, you're adorable when you get all princely, he sent.

Loki huffed back at him in exasperation, the huff having a strong flavor of "pathetic mortal" to it, which Tony also found pretty cute.

After a second or two, Loki totally undercut his own indignation by sending back, I'm glad to have you by my side in these days.

Me too, Lok. Me too.

Helpful to their cause or not, Tony felt more than inclined to give Thor a pass anyway. Emotions-wise, he'd traveled, in his time, to similar dark places, had days and weeks when hauling his carcass out of bed, getting dressed and giving a weak impersonation of ordinary human behavior went far beyond anything he could manage, when even brushing his teeth or throwing a dollop of gel into his hair felt like the equivalent of running a marathon. He knew the signs of hitting the wall, and he suspected Loki, who knew his brother best, was 100% correct in thinking that Thor had hit a wall way too thick and tall to scramble over with any kind of ease or quickness, and because of that, asking the god of thunder (temporarily on hiatus) to fight, or time travel, or really much of anything else veered beyond unkind and into the realm of cruelty.

Thor could probably have fought his way through countless battles, or bashed aside veritable mountains of scary beasties, and hardly broken a sweat, but what truly cut him down had been losing and losing and losing again, through no fault of his own, and in ways that all the might and worthiness in the world had no power to protect against.

Loki's death, at the precise moment when, after literal centuries of strife, they'd finally reconciled and reconfirmed their brotherhood, had struck the thunder god such a desperately mortal blow that even getting his brother back again, well and whole, had done little to heal Thor's injury.

The fact remained that, after all the losses he also hadn't been able to prevent, he'd watched the person he loved most die, painfully, right in front of his eyes, and couldn't do a thing to help.

Tony had to wonder if the magic Loki performed now, while his brother slept, might be no more complex than sending to Thor a steady reassurance that he didn't need to be infallible, and that the brother he'd lost and grieved for so bitterly was there with him, and that he cared.

"Here is good, right?" Bruce asked, grabbing the first beige chair, while Nebula claimed the second. Steve, Rocket and Natasha lined up on Red Couch the Lesser, the woodland creature (enhanced version) occupying the space between the two Avengers like a short, hairy chaperone.

All other seating having already been claimed, Tony dragged the Ekornes recliner in from the caramel sofa lounge--which meant that, with a tiny amount of extra work, he actually had the last laugh. The Ekornes company advertised that chair as "stressless" for a reason, and it wasn't for its Scandinavian Modern design features. Sitting on that thing was like floating gently on a cloud.

Tony maneuvered his chair-of-ultimate-comfort into a spot right by Loki's end of Red Couch the Greater, close enough to wrap an arm around the god's slim shoulders and pull him near. The warmth of mutual support flowed easily between them, making Tony feel like he'd be able to hold things together whatever else cropped up, and accomplish anything he put his mind to.

After all, what was a little time travel and Infinity Stone... uh... borrowing between friends?

They'd make a good team. They could do this. They had their wagons circled, ready to defend life, the Universe and everything.

Now all they needed was a concrete plan.

Loki's hand, the one that had been resting on his brother's forehead, performed a neat little swish-and-flick action in midair, returning again to the older god's brow before Thor had time to so much as grunt in his sleep and roll ever.

The thunderous snoring instantly muted.

"Nice trick," Tony said. "Now, how about, in the interest of letting Cap concentrate instead of trying to resurrect those pancakes, we let FRIDAY order out for us? My treat."

Par for the course, nobody wanted anything like the same type of food, but Tony knew, at this point, not to snark about that. Better they drew the line at disagreeing about takeout choices, rather than being at each others' throats about ways to save the world.

"I take it we've lost Clint for the duration?" he asked.

"He headed back to the farm," Natasha answered, neutral-voiced.

Like that's a healthy choice, Tony thought. Nat's eyes, for once showing her true feelings, pretty much said the same.

"And Rhodey--Colonel Rhodes--was called back to D.C.," she added, running her fingers through her hair, which had returned to being short and fiery-red again, just like at the beginning.

Tony blinked, the realization hitting him that not only did their remaining SuperSpy have a makeover, but Steve had shaved off his beard. It left him wondering if he should cover up the gray in his own hair.

Bruce, comfortingly, looked just the same as Bruce always looked. He didn't even have different glasses.

"Wanna start us off, Steve?" Tony asked, using his own neutral voice, his figurative White Flag of Parley flying high for all to see. Let it not be said, should this dissolve into tears and recriminations, that the breakdown had been his doing.

How could it dissolve into anything, though, when only Steve and Nat remained to represent Team Cap?

You need to stop, Tony told himself. Just stop. Leave the hostility at the door. It's nothing but toxic. One of those warm little ripples of comfort and approval flowed through him then, and he knew he'd made the right choice.

Eyes on the prize, Stark. Eyes on the prize.

"Um. Okay," Steve said, sounding more exhausted than he did I-am-your-fearless-Ieaderish, the way he had back in the day. Facing off with a nearly-omnipotent alien and losing on every single level would do that to a guy.

Natasha gave him a little nod and a smile.

"Okay, then," Steve tried again. "Actually... I think I'll mostly be turning the floor over to Loki, since he's already taken the first step, and has to know a lot more than anyone else here about what possibly comes next."

He gave Tony an almost-not-hesitant grin.

"I thank you, Captain. We all realize, by now, that the cosmos has changed," Loki slid in, managing to strike a tone that could actually, realistically be interpreted as encouraging. "We--each of us--has changed."

"Loki's right, things have changed," Steve agreed, with a equally not-unfriendly nod in the god's direction. "For a lot of you, I wasn't ever your captain. For the rest--I'm not sure I can even claim to be your captain anymore, not these days. I appreciate, too, how tough this is. Each of us is hurting. Each of us has someone--maybe even several someones, who's gone. That hurts, and so does losing to Thanos the way we did. We don't want to lose again, not with these stakes to consider.

"Like Loki says, we've all changed, and I know we can work together from here on out. We just want to get those people back. We want to fix not just our world, but all the worlds we can fix. Last time we tried things didn't go so great. This time we're going to do better, and to do better, we have to communicate and cooperate. No sniping. No getting physical with each other. No..."

Steve glanced at Loki, something close to humor lighting his eyes. "No needless pranks, maybe?" His gaze shifted to Tony. "Minimal... what's the word? Minimal snarking. We have one goal, all of us. Let's remember that."

"Well spoken," Loki said, his voice quiet and firm again. "Indeed, I will even agree to reserve my natural inclination toward mischief for more appropriate days yet to come. Given the worthiness of the cause, and its import, I suggest that we delay these next forays for as little time as we may, moving forward instead with all due speed. An event such as this is not unlike the casting of a stone into a pond, and the ever-widening ripples that spread out from where that stone falls. If we act at once, the damage may be negligible, those ripples scarcely spread. The more time passes..." 

"The greater the damage," Tony chimed in. "Right now, we're already looking not only at the... uh... dusted, but the collateral damage, the car accidents, plane crashes, that sort of thing that followed. Pretty soon--and I do mean pretty damn soon, it could easily be collapsing governments, infrastructure, food supply chains....

"Not to mention..." He gave Loki's hand an extra squeeze, just to comfort himself. "Well, everything. Failures at water treatment facilities, shortages of First Responders, power outages, civil unrest, wildfires..."

He sucked in a deep breath, having thoroughly depressed himself just thinking about all the chaos (and not of the potentially fun Loki variety) that he could only too easily envision for times soon-to-come. "Hell, who knows if we can even rule out plagues of locusts, or rains of fucking toads?"

Steve, once again, didn't even bother to "language" him.

"If the Colonel's been called back so soon," Natasha added, jumping on the "Let's Spread a Little Extra Cheer" train. "If his presence in Washington is seen as even more important than his Avengers duties, what does that say about the situation there, or with the military?"

"And even further on, thinking of whoever makes it in the long-term..." Bruce, who wasn't ever really what Tony would call a super-happy guy, looked even-more-than-usually grim. "What if we can't undo things right away, and fixing this ends up taking some time? What happens in a year? How about in five years? How much collateral damage will we be talking about then? How many children have lost their parents, or parents lost their kids? How many people will grieve, then move on, and end up in a horrible situation when we finally do get things set right again? How many will grieve, and... not." He swallowed convulsively, his eyes already red-rimmed and bleary.

Natasha jumped up from the couch and went to him, wrapping her arms tightly around Bruce from behind.

"...Not be able," he rasped on. "Does anyone else feel like they're just... completely losing it?"

Nebula narrowed her eyes at him, clearly thinking, What is this "it" you speak of?

"Yeah, don't think that's just here, either," put in Rocket. "Think about it. We're talking about the same fucking stuff, on a shit-ton of worlds, all across the Universe."

"Think of Thor's people," Loki said. "That is, of our people. A few thousands escaped Asgard. Half of those Thanos killed outright, and then of the sad remnant who escaped..." Loki's thumb brushed across his fingers with a dry, whispery sound.

"Half of all life," Nebula said, her voice quietly savage. "If only I could slay my father a thousand and a thousand times."

"So, the Head of Mumbles--" Tony threw Loki a quick glance. "It told us what do do: find the Stones from before they were destroyed, bring them together, hit undo. Use the Stones to erase what the Stones did. Are there any other options?"

Loki shook his head. "None that have ever been whispered of, to my knowledge. The Stones are... the Stones."

"But what are they, exactly?" Nat asked. "I mean... 'Stones' seems a little vague.; Obviously, these aren't just some random geological samples."

"The first account I read," Loki answered, "Helpfully listed them as the eyes, kidneys and testicles of the giant Ymir, from whose form all life and substance was created. This account may, strictly speaking, not be entirely accurate."

Even Steve smiled at that one.

"Less... colorful sources speak of six singularities, six absolute distillations of the essence of the Universe, from the dawn of time when all sprang forth into being. The Infinity Stones possess each a distinct power and each a distinct name: space, mind, reality, power, soul, and time. They exist, immutable in nature, in every branch of the World Tree, and I suspect that even those Thanos claims to have destroyed will regather and remake themselves, in time." 

"But not so much time on our--or even your--scale, right, Loki?" Steve asked. "More like on a, um... cosmic scale?"

"Unfortunately, that's true," Loki agreed. "It's not an event we ought to wait for, especially should my conjecture prove false. Better by far to find a place and time in the past when the individual Stones were most easily accessible. For an example, I'd much rather collect the Aether--the Reality Stone--when the conduit first opens that allows it passage to Midgard, rather than needing to siphon it from Jane Foster's body, then inject it back into her once we've finished. Such an act strikes me as unsavory in the extreme."

"You make a good point," Steve said, just managing to hide a cringe.

"Going to Knowhere and stealing from The Collector?" Rocket put in. "Also not so good."

"Well, one of them--the Time Stone, right?--should have been here in New York." Tony asked. "Circa 2012? And then, in the same year, another two would just be a hop, skip, and a jump over, relatively speaking. I mean, still in the U.S., at least. If we head off to the Mojave, and hit the--what was that damn place called? The Joint Dark Energy Mission Facility? That's two more Stones in the same year, with just a little jaunt west."

"Correct," Loki agreed. "Doctor Strange, presumably, would have possession of the Time Stone, both then and up until his recent departure. I certainly held the Space and Mind Stones, the Mind Stone in the scepter which, to my deepest regret, I was given by Thanos, and the Tesseract, which awaited me at SHIELD's clumsily-named desert facility. Seek me at the moment of my arrival upon Midgard, before Clinton was enthralled, and you will find me weak and shaken, easily overwhelmed. Be wary of the staff, however, and guard yourselves, for its influence is baleful."

"Point taken," Tony said. "Remember, guys, on the helicarrier? We spent like five minutes around the damn thing and started arguing like fishwives. Actually, I'm not sure why fishwives should argue more than any other group of people, but let's take it as a given that they do. That we did. In fact, I recall us getting positively crabtastic with each other. That in mind, I should probably rig up a case, something with major shielding, so that we don't lose our shit transporting the Glow Stick of Destiny from Point A to Point B."

"Well-reasoned." Loki smiled at Tony, but like his 2012 self, that smile looked awfully weak and shaky. "I remember... Much is vague, but I remember you giving the scepter that name. I think..." His brows drew together, and the smile turned more frowny than anything. "I had no idea what you meant."

FRIDAY announced the arrival of their food, and while Steve and Bruce went to do the honors, Loki leaned his head over (always careful of his horns) onto Tony's shoulder, and Tony squeezed him just a little tighter.

I wish I'd tried to talk to you, Tony said. Really talked, instead of getting into a cock-measuring contest. That was kinda my default, especially in those days.

You express yourself amusingly, Loki told him.

In retrospect, you looked awful...

My thanks, Loki responded.

Take no offense, you looked hot as fuck, especially when you were striding around on the table like you owned the world, but in the back of my head I also noticed that you looked sick, and stressed as hell, and like you hadn't slept in years. When Thor didn't say anything, after, I didn't say anything, but I knew and, pissed as I was at you for the longest time, it still bothered me.

That time was... Loki started, but then the words just trailed away, the god not letting out a peep the whole time the two helpful Avengers were sorting out their orders.

"Thank you, Tony," he finally concluded, almost too quietly to be heard.

Great minds thinking alike, both he and Loki had ordered Thai--Tony a giant carton of shrimp Pad Thai, hotness level: four stars, Loki a carton of Tom Yum Soup with tofu and bitty little mushrooms, which he looked at, sniffed, and set aside.

We can get you something else, if you don't like, Tony sent, less for privacy than because his mouth was stuffed full of spicy noodles.

"No. No, it smells good," Loki insisted. 

I will... try. To eat it.

Tony forced himself to stopped feeding his face, chew and swallow. Loki?

On Sakaar... the god began. 

Tony waited. Patience didn't come easily to him, but he tried to be patient.

On Sakaar, one was forced to eat, forced to drink, as the Grandmaster willed it, and sometimes there was nothing... Another long pause. The Grandmaster, cruel and petty being that he was. found... a great many things amusing that I found... somewhat less so.

Oh, Lok, babe, I'm sorry. But you've gotta know...

I do know, Tony. Intellectually, I do know that nothing I consume here will be altered, nothing tainted. That I may eat what I wish, drink what I wish, and none of it will cause me hurt or shame. It's only, having that power restored to me, that autonomy over my own body, I find it hard, at times, not to exercise that control.

May we leave the topic at this? I will try.

Can I fix you a cup of coffee at least, then? Heavy cream, heavy sugar?

You are kind to me. That little will o' the wisp smile flickered over Loki's mouth. You are kind.

The thought, in Loki's head, sounded like a revelation.

Over in the kitchen, firing up the coffee maker, Tony found himself considering that Thor wasn't the only Asgardian--or part-Asgardian--who shouldn't have to be in on this. That Loki had also been through too much, up to and including literally dying, and what if it all, however much they might need him, proved to be more, at this point, than he could take?

With Thanos, on Prickly Pear and Thistle World, he'd been cool (ha!) and collected, made plans, kicked ass, and got the job done, but...

But.

Sighing, and having added half a cup of cream and the equivalent of something like eight sugar cubes to the big mug of Kicking Horse dark roast arabica, Tony carried the cup back into the red couch lounge.

Loki took the mug gratefully, eyes closing with pleasure as he drank.

I can tell, oddly enough, when coffee has been adulterated, he explained. The volatile oils become unbalanced.

If I drank that much coffee in one go, with that much sugar, I'd become unbalanced.

Loki laughed.

"And so, back to business?" he asked.

Tony picked up his carton of Pad Thai, reminding himself not to shovel it in like it was his last meal--then noticing that, not even Nat excluded, that was pretty much exactly what everyone else seemed to be doing. They hadn't been too consistent lately with things like regular meals. His own body definitely seemed to resent all those weeks spent starving in space, and he felt more than grateful that Loki's timely intervention had saved him from days of suffering through an extended course of Bruce's well-intentioned vanilla chalk shakes.

"So," Tony resumed, after panting briefly to diffuse the four-star heat of his noodles. "Assuming that that we acquire the Reality Stone before it jumps into Jane Foster, and we're successful with our snatch-and-grab in the desert, and we keep in mind that Dr. Strange remains more-or-less readily available, with the Time Stone safe and sound inside his ugly-ass locket, somewhere in his weird house in the Village, how do we make him cough it up? Can we arrange some kind of 'This is your future, give us the Stone, asshole' lightshow for his entertainment?"

"I imagine that might be easily enough arranged," Loki answered.

"And then that just leaves the Power Stone and the Soul Stone." Steve swallowed a bite of his (what else?) cheeseburger. He probably had a slice of apple pie all ready for dessert. "Is that correct?"

"The Power Stone's a cinch," Rocket said. "Check this out: we jump back to 2014 Terra Time, swoop down to Xandar, snitch it during the ceremony when they're thanking my guys for handing it over to Nova Prime. Zip-zap, switcheroo, off we jet, no one's the wiser. And that's just one possibility--bet I could figure out a bunch more."

"And I," Loki added, his face absolutely smooth, with no expression whatsoever. "Have devised a plan to obtain the Soul Stone from the planet Vormir."

"Which is?" Tony asked. "Care to enlighten us?"

"Complicated," Loki answered, smiling, looking perfectly at peace now as he sipped his coffee.

Chapter Text

Everyone, it seemed, had been hungry, because when the feeding frenzy finally ended, the seven of them sat (or, in Thor's case, lay) in the midst of a wreckage of bottles, cans, and empty takeout containers. Even Loki--though with a notable lack of enthusiasm--had polished off his Tom Yum soup, afterwards declaring it "passable."

And, yes, of course Steve had apple pie for dessert. There'd never been any doubt, really.

I should do something about the mess, Tony told himself, only it felt too good to sit there in his stressless recliner, stomach full and Loki's fingers intertwined with his own.

Seconds later, Steve, Good Citizen that he was, collected a trash bag from the kitchen and commenced cleanup. Because of course he would.

"You need any help, Steve? I could..." Bruce didn't exactly offer.

"No, no, I'm good," Cap answered, with a little smile and a shake of his head.

Bruce would have helped, Tony knew that--unlike the rest of them. Bruce was an offering kind of person. He'd probably been that kid in grade school who volunteered to clap the chalkdust out of the erasers, or refill the teacher's collection of empty baby food jars with that white paste that the weird kids ate.

Yes, Bruce did so to avoid his home, Loki informed him, in a kind of sleepy aside, not really seeming to pay attention to his own words, or what they meant. Tony picked up a sense of muted sympathy to go with them, but also a much, much larger sense that every piece of what he saw in Bruce's mind perplexed him equally, the erasers and the sticky paste every bit as confusing to him as Bruce's monstrous dad.

An odd sensory image drifted through to Tony after this: of thirst, dust, a burning golden sun, a sound like wood striking hard against wood. Somewhere behind all that, a man's harsh voice called out a word Loki's mind interpreted for him as, Again! Again! in a tone that wasn't angry, wasn't deliberately cruel, only... was merciless the right word? As counterpoint, Thor's voice drifted in, younger and higher than Tony had ever heard it, but still unmistakably Thor: Try, Loki, try. You will master it. You will.

It struck Tony that not only did Thor sounded young, he sounded as if he wanted to cry. 

"A foolish remembrance," Loki said, folding away that unexplained snippet of memory the way another man might fold an old snapshot into the depths of his wallet. He said something to his brother then, too quietly for Tony to hear.

The air rippled, and Loki's hand disappeared out of his, along with all the rest of Loki. Thor disappeared too, for all that he looked a thousand times too solid to disappear into thin anything, much less thin air. A minute or so later, Loki came striding back toward the lounge, completely nonchalant, and resumed his seat on the sofa.

"No," he said to Nebula. "I didn't want to. I don't want to, if it comes to that."

In return, Scraps gave the kind of shrug that seems to convey, Okay, I guess you know best.

"It is for the best," Loki answered.

Steve shook his head again, tied off the bag he'd just filled and carried it straight out the side door, presumably to the dumpster, instead of doing what Tony would have done at least five times out of ten, which was leave it by the door "for later" (which usually meant until some other, worthier person spied it there and took care of it for him).

He wasn't proud of the fact; that's just how he was. He got distracted.

You are truly so... indolent? Loki asked, giving Tony the distinct impression that "indolent" wasn't actually the first word that popped into the god's head.

He wondered what the SpaceViking word for "lazy-assed" might be.

I might call you a "latur rassgat" and it would be no less than the truth. How is it you work so diligently at your inventions, and keep your workshop in good order, yet cannot be bothered to pick up after yourself in your ordinary surroundings? Don't think I haven't noticed your used and foul-smelling clothing left wantonly upon the chamber floor?

I grew up with servants? Tony teased, trying not to laugh at Loki's just-revealed persnickety side.

I might remind you that I, also, grew up with servants. It was considered disrespectful to them and their service to leave one's things in turmoil.

Loki, Loki, some god of Chaos you are!

That I am a god of Chaos does not entail that I wish to find my surroundings ever in Chaos! Loki paused, eyes narrowing. It's possible that you're sporting with me.

It's... possible, Tony agreed, slipping his arm around Loki's shoulders, pulling him close. Or not.

You were right to insist that I eat, Loki said, leaning into the closeness. However unwelcome such insistence might have been, I now feel more settled.

And that's good, right? By the way, I fully admit that you're right in insisting that I don't leave my stinky clothes on the bedroom floor. Jarvis wouldn't have tolerated that for two seconds, and neither should you.

Then we are agreed, Loki said, not without a touch of smugness, though a wash of that now-familiar warmth flowed through Tony's chest before Loki pulled back again. Now, here is your Captain, returned from his labors.

Steve slid back into his original seat next to Rocket. The hem of his left sleeve still showed a damp, dark line, from where Cap had oh-so-properly washed his hands.

"Thanks for taking care of clean-up duties, Steve," Tony told him. "I'll get it next time, okay?"

Bruce actually scoffed at that, but Steve smiled and shrugged. "That's all right, Tony. I picked up, you paid. Seems fair to me."

"So..." Tony glanced around the circle of faces, trying to ignore the little surge of irritation that wanted to rise up in his belly, a surge that had nothing at all to do with the huge serving of spicy noodles he'd shoveled down for lunch. Steve had that way about him of seeming, always, so forthright and fair and decent that he tended to make Tony question himself, even in situations where he knew he was right and Cap wrong. It was infuriating, and Tony hated it.

But this, he reminded himself, isn't one of those times. This time we're pulling together, which means you need to keep it together, not get bogged down in the past.

"So," he tried again. "What's next? Do we choose teams? Actually, how do we choose teams? Schoolyard pick, anyone?"

"Oh, please, God, no!" Bruce responded, images of his shy, awkward, bespectacled childhood self clearly tripping and fumbling through his head, that boy who always, no exceptions, got picked last when choosing sides, whatever the sport.

"Absolutely not!" Steve agreed, barely suppressing a shudder. It was pretty easy to forget, looking at Steve in the here-and-now, the very image of manly perfection, that pre-serum Steve had been plucky as hell, but still the proverbial ninety-pound weakling.

"How about this, then?" Bruce continued, after exchanging a look of mutual childhood trauma with their fearless leader. "Tony, Rocket, Nebula and I make up Team Tech, leaving Nat--you, Steve--and Loki for Team Find the Stones?"

"Only Nebs and I peel away for the Xandar excursion," Rocket cut in. "Just point us toward a spaceship. We'll fix it up, make sure it flies, and then, y'know, actually fly it."

"Though we might also, presumably, use the Tesseract to travel," Loki said. "However, you have also the additional advantage of familiarity with Nova Prime and her planet, and with events surrounding first the Power Stone's recovery, then its surrender."

"Yeah, there's that," Rocket agreed. "Plus, I really like to steal stuff. It's a talent."

"By all means, then, let us make use of your skills," Loki told him, complete with his best "I solemnly swear I am up to no good" grin. The super-raccoon's rough-and-ready manner aside, Loki clearly regarded him as a kindred spirit.

"And your brother?" Steve asked.

"Thor, though sleeping now within his own chamber, is to be told, in time, that he's here to protect the technical team from untoward interference," Loki answered, in a tone that made it clear the subject wasn't open to further discussion. "I leave it to you, Tony, to ensure he believes this version of events without question."

"You got it," Tony said, wondering how he'd ever believed, even for a second, that Thor and Loki weren't the number one people in each others' worlds. No two people ever got that much of a mad on with each other without having a whole, whole lot of something behind it.

"Is there the possibility of 'untoward interference?'" Steve asked. "Realistically?"

"Realistically?" Loki gave his best "what do you think?" look, complete with one raised eyebrow. "We'll travel through dark waters, Captain, and though I intend to take every precaution, the lion's share of my attention must, by necessity, be devoted to our passage. For this reason alone, there's every chance we may pick up what you of Midgard might term 'hitchhikers.'"

"That's not in any way a creepy thought," Rocket said.

"Indeed," Loki agreed. "For all other journeys I believe these teams, as stated, will serve us well. These will be, by necessity, missions of stealth or persuasion, rather than brute strength. Only the last, to obtain the Soul Stone, must differ. I will go, along with either Captain Rogers or Agent Romanov. Not both."

"And why is that exactly, Loki?" Nat asked, eyes visibly narrowing.

"For the reason that you are fond of one another, and neither possess any degree of affection for me. For danger to be avoided, and for my plan to succeed, we can take no other approach. I'm willing to swear the most solemn of oaths that whichever becomes my companion will suffer no harm by my hand. However, if this provision is not agreed to, I will proceed no further with these plans."

"Lok..." Tony began.

"I will bear the guilt for no more Midgardian blood," Loki snapped, shooting straight from perfectly chill into as angry as Tony had ever seen him. "Not one more drop. Am I understood?"

Natasha studied his face, all suspicion gone now, replaced by something close to pity. "You weren't lying to us," she said quietly. "What you claimed Thanos did to you--that was the truth."

"Yes," Loki agreed, with the icy rage of someone who tries to keep up a mask at all times being forced to reveal his true face. "That was the truth."

 They all knew better than to say "sorry," or express any kind of sympathy. Maybe Tony could do so later, in absolute privacy. Right now it would only be taken as an insult.

One of those brief interludes followed in which everyone looked as if they wished they had folders to open or papers to shuffle, anything to distract from the awkwardness. Tony actually glanced at his phone, fake-checking for messages, though he really saw nothing but a blur.

Loki spat out a word or two in SpaceViking, obviously swears of at least f-bomb magnitude, before getting back to business.

"We have choices before us. By my lights, the sooner we acquire the Time and Space Stones, the easier our venture becomes. Having handled the Tesseract in the past, I am comfortable in its use, but to my mind the Time Stone ought to be recovered before any other. As I've explained, I am able to influence time and its threads, and with the mechanical item Tony has designed, such travel will become easier. However, with the Stone in our possession, what has been--to use an analogy--a marathon run through the desert becomes a frolic amidst blooms in a garden."

Tony had to glare at his own knees and think of somber things--the image of the Lokster's potential garden frolic just struck him the wrong way, and he knew his face wasn't to be trusted.

"Also, when all is explained, especially by you, Captain Rogers--and most especially if you are able to persuade Strange to consult the stone and thereby see what will be--I would expect the so-named Sorcerer Supreme..."

"Pompous goat-fucker," Rocket muttered under his breath.

"To allow us temporary custody," Loki finished, though he didn't entirely manage to hide his grin. "The question remains, do we seek the stone in the year 2012, Current Era, as Midgard reckons such things, or do we make the attempt closer to this current time, yet before the arrival of what Thanos names his 'Children?'"

He gave Nebula a sympathetic look, and maybe said something too, mind-to-mind, while she did a million-yard stare in the general direction of the kitchen.

"Pros and cons?" Natasha asked.

"A single time-jump, if all goes well, nets us three Stones. Presumably we may use Captain Rogers's authority, or yours, Agent Romanov, to arrange transport from New York to the Mojave."

"I'd even suggest you ask Somewhere in Time me for the use of a Quinjet, except I know for a fact that the me of 2012 is a complete asshole."

"He is!" Steve agreed, with an actual laugh, his eyes sparkling at Tony in a way that should have spoken of good times and friendship, but after a few seconds just seemed to make both of them sad.

Nothing in the world sucked, Tony sometimes imagined, like being older and wiser.

"My thought would be..." Bruce offered, into the following awkward silence. "Is that we not try for all three stones in 2012, but--for the Time Stone at least--opt for the shortest possible jump, into the recent past, if it's easier on Loki. Whatever Team Tech comes up with--and correct me if I'm wrong here, Loki--he's still doing the heavy lifting. The last thing we want is for him to burn out and leave us messing around with dangerous magical objects."

"Any one of you could force your will upon the Stones," Loki said then. "But I would not advise that you do so. Like all objects magical or quasi-magical in nature, I assume they possess a certain consciousness of their own, and are inclined to be... let us say, willful."

"Like genies?" Bruce asked. "They give you three wishes, but for the first one you say, 'Make me a beautiful mansion.' Poof! Instantly, you're a beautiful mansion, incapable of wishing for anything, and the genie snickers at you, picks up his lamp and walks away."

Loki laughed. "Bruce, you understand exactly!"

"And Mrs. Munson at the Fourth Street Library said reading fairy tales was a waste of time," Bruce answered, laughing with him.

"She sounds most unpleasant," Loki added. "If nothing else, those books were your companions, and to insult them was to insult loved and needed friends."

Bruce, Tony suspected, wasn't the only one for whom books had been loved and needed friends. For that matter, even as extroverted and out there as he'd been, there'd still been times when traveling through space with Heinlein, Asimov or Andre Norton had been far preferable to his own everyday existence.

He drifted into a brief fantasy of all this being over, curled up in some comfortable place with the reading lamps on and the fireplace lit, a warm beverage close at hand and he and Loki just randomly sprawled over each other, quiet and companionable as he flicked through screens on his StarkPad and Loki turned pages.

He could imagine lots of different good scenarios for times spent with his god of mischief--from laughter, to nights out on the town, to smokin' hot sexy times--but in his whole life he'd never met anyone who fit so perfectly into that little fantasy, a person who cared about him, with whom he could just be quiet and comfortable and read.

Yes, Loki said softly in his head, Yes, to all those, but most particularly to removing the mask, the two of us quiet together and subject to no mockery.

"Now," he said aloud, "I believe there's tinkering to be done?"

"Just one more thing," Steve put in. "If we've gathered all the Stones..."

"When," Natasha corrected.

"Okay, when," Steve agreed, shaking his head, but smiling at the same time. "When we have them all, what do we do with them? We know Thanos had his gauntlet, but what did it do? What purpose did it serve? If we want to reverse the snap, what do we use."

"Perhaps these will serve as a template," Loki said, reaching sideways, into his pocket universe.

One by one, he set a pair of gold gauntlets on the Lucite coffee table. First one to fit a left hand, shining and pristine, then the second, blackened and twisted.

"Are those that the actual...?" Bruce began.

"I know the one," Nebula said. "It was my never-father's, the one he used to bring about this harm."

"And the other?" Rocket poked it with a paw. "Huh. Shiny."

"I removed it from Odin's vault in Asgard," Loki told them. "Hela, my presumed mother, left it there, thinking it nothing but a replica, without power, false.

"My mother's abilities, however, are not mine. I have given this gauntlet some thought, some study, and believe she was wrong, that it is not false at all, only inactive."

"Inactive," Tony repeated. "And if we make it active, what happens then?"

"If the first was the gauntlet of making one's will manifest, then perhaps this is the gauntlet of unmaking?"

"In other words, if you're right," Steve said, "It's exactly what we need."

Chapter Text

"You look tense," Tony commented to Loki. "Are you tense?"

"Merely relieved your most recent round of tinkering hasn't forced me into wearing some even more ridiculous garment," Loki responded, as if the sartorial restrictions (and/or requirements) of time travel had even the slightest connection to whatever the hell was currently going on inside his head, which seemed to be a weird combination of calculations, random musical phrases that sounded (maybe) a little like Bach, and odd swirls of vivid color, some in shades Tony wasn't actually sure he'd ever seen before.

All of these were arranged on something like a traditional stage, with wings, and a curtain, and a big open space up above. Considered either all together or piece by piece, none of it made any sense to Tony whatsoever.

"Fret not, hjarta minn," Loki said, and gave him a small, tight, I'm-not-really-paying-much-attention grin.

Tony wasn't fooled. Yeah, the god of "fret not" was nervous. He had to be, right?

"Seriously, Lok, is that what time looks like to you?" Tony had to ask, because--countless smart-ass "wingardium leviosa" or "Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo" jokes aside--he'd begun to suspect that this whole magic thing might actually be hella complicated, and also potentially harder on Loki than a certain god of lies felt prepared to admit, despite what he'd said about doing this since he was a kid. At the very least, Tony really would have liked to gain at least some remedial understanding of the no-doubt hideously dangerous adventure his not-quite-but-almost-boyfriend was about to embark on, with two of his no-longer-quite-but-almost-friends in tow.

"I understand your desire to 'fix' that which goes awry. However..." Loki knelt in the center of the round platform (yes, Tony had insisted that they refer to it as the "Launchpad") that formed the base of what Tony and Bruce together had dubbed "The Wayback Machine." How could they have called it anything else?

The jury remained out on which of them got to be Mr. Peabody and which was His Boy Sherman, and since the jury consisted, understandably, of only the two of them--the man out of time, the Russian spy, the two Norse gods, the altered raccoon and the alien cyborg not feeling qualified to contribute--it seemed likely to remain so.

Loki, following no design Tony could comprehend, now felt his way along the circuits that Team Tech had designed as a frequently-contentious group project, but Loki himself distributed around the launchpad according to some plan of design that made sense to him, and him alone. The Vibranium-infused touch-points (and thank you for that, Queen Ramonda, since the god insisted no other Midgardian substance would serve him so well) on his black-gloved fingertips glimmered darkly as he traced out pattern after pattern, all the while softly humming those same Bach-flavored sequences of notes.

The truth was, Loki had explained, and explained some more, and even drawn a series of intensely detailed and really astonishingly lovely diagrams, and he, Tony Stark (PhD's in physics, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering and, yeah, he coulda had more degrees if he wanted, but why bother?) and Bruce Banner (seven PhD's in, like, well... everything AND a medical degree), Nebula (advanced alien cyborg) and Rocket (advanced... uh... woodland creature that wasn't a rabbit) and all four of them had sat staring at those drawings, hearing those explanations and basically finding themselves incapable of saying much beyond a resounding... "Uh... duh... What's that you say?"

At which point Thor came shuffling out of his bedroom in baggy smog-colored sweats and the crappiest, most broken-down pair of Jesus-sandals Tony had ever seen, yawned, rubbed his eyes, poured himself a bucket-sized cup of coffee from the Tech Team Only! coffee maker, and shuffled over to peer at the top-most drawing.

"Oh, Loki," he said, then yawned again. "How well you've mapped the branches of Yggdrasil!" He traced a single minuscule blue curlicue with one mighty forefinger. "Doesn't this squiggle-thing go there, though? On the other side?"

Loki beamed up at him. "Quite correct, brother! Well-noticed."

"Sometimes it only takes a second set of eyes," Thor commented, squeezed Loki's shoulder warmly, and shuffled out again.

 

Tony watched Loki's vibranium-tipped finger trace that same little squiggle on the launchpad, green light glowing where he touched, a smile stealing over the god's face just before he straightened.

"I would go," Thor said a little sadly from just past the edge of the launchpad, the contrast between him--fit as ever, but still seeming nearly shapeless in those ever-present droopy gray sweats--and the three time travelers, decked out in sleek, nanobyte-based protective suits that covered them like second skins, making them look as if they belonged in two entirely different worlds.

Which, Tony guessed, they totally did.

"I would protect you," Thor added, in the same mournful tone.

"I know, brother," Loki said, reaching out to grasp Thor's forearms, as Thor grasped his. "Instead, I trust you to protect our Shield-brothers and Shield-sister, and keep all safe until our return. Yes? You will do this for me?"

"Oh, Loki..." Thor began, and though Tony thought that maybe the god of thunder meant to say something else, maybe let Loki know he was onto his plans, he just kissed Loki's cheeks, left, then right, after which Loki did the same to him.

By contrast, the kiss Loki gave Tony was passionate, almost savage, and the hug his god of maybe-this-won't-be-quite-so-easy-as-I-made-it-sound chose to follow the kiss up with nearly hurt, and not just in emotional terms.

Almost before Tony knew what had happened, though, Loki stepped back into the circle, took hold of Steve and Natasha's hands and nodded to Rocket to fire up the Wayback Machine, which, whatever they called it, wasn't really a time machine at all, more of a focusing-glass for Loki's magical energies and, hopefully, later, something to manage and contain the force of the Stones.

Gauntlets, they'd decided, were so pre-Snappening. Especially if using one in an attempt to undo Thanos's dirty deeds did to any one of them what it had done to the crazy Titan.

Green fire shot up from the launchpad, the exact same shade as Loki's burning tree of birds, making the three figures inside shimmer, then waver, like figures glimpsed through an extreme heat haze. Through this, Tony could still make out Loki's face clearly, his features set and still, with an expression of deep concentration.

A high, clear note rose on the air, almost identical to that bright silver-on-crystal Ting! that had awakened Tony back on the Jolly Ship Nebula, then, with a soft inward-rushing pop, the three time travelers vanished.

Almost immediately, a certain extra feature--the one no one knew about except for Loki and him--began to emit a low-frequency vibration.

Tony glanced into the palm of his hand, where the strand Loki had given him lay coiled, looking for all the world like a single fiber-optic filament, alive with bright greenness despite remaining disconnected from any light-source whatsoever.

As he watched, this strand gave a little quiver and just seemed to dissolve onto (into?) his skin, bringing with it a sense of shivery heat, like the onset of the flu, that coursed down Tony's entire body.

He gripped the edge of the console for support as a further sense of profound vertigo--of not just the room spinning, but the entire world--followed, and someone caught hold of him, calling his name from far, far away, at which point Tony, feeling just as far removed from his own physical body, as that unknown (but most likely Bruce) person was from him, distantly experienced his knees buckling, his cheekbone colliding with a row of buttons as he went down for the count.

After that, he had no body at all--or no body of his own, that was. Everything he saw, heard, smelled, touched, felt, wasn't his own, only Loki's, a perspective Tony found vast, profoundly beautiful, and terrifying. The closest he could possibly come to describing the sensation was to compare it to viewing everything in the kind of detail a person normally only encounters through something like micro-photography, in which a bee's compound eye resembles a Volkswagen bug decked out in holographic lenses, or microscopic water bears (Loki would almost certainly correct him to say "Tardigrades" instead--but might then be just as likely to bring up the nickname "moss piglets," or then compare the tiny, near-indestructible creatures' looks to the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland) appear the size of grizzlies.

Only the world glimpsed through Loki's eyes wasn't infinitesimal-made-perceivable, but the regular world, Lokified, which for any ordinary human mind--or even (if Tony did say so himself) a genius mind like his own--was just too much.

Too much light, color, detail, noise--even the fucking dust as it drifted through the air had a sound, and since the shadowy room Loki stood up in looked plenty dusty, that equaled more noise than Tony could tolerate. He wanted to run screaming, or maybe throw up.

Only then Loki did... something, and it all dialed back at least 99%, which still left everything more-than-usually vivid, in a way that felt slightly drug-enhanced, but not necessarily unbearable. Actually, it left Tony wanting to wander around the room, just touching, and looking at, and listening to random stuff, because it was all so damn interesting.

Another time, beloved, Loki told him, sounding amused. And my apologies for the unpleasant transition. I ought to have adjusted sooner. The journey itself left me slightly... discomposed.

The strand Tony had been given, the glowing green not-fiber-optic filament, was a part of Loki (who'd called it a thread of his "seiðr," whatever that might be), thus Tony would be with him, the god had explained. Since Tony didn't have a comparable piece of himself to offer in return, all contact would remain one-sided, their "normal" mind-to-mind conversations not possible across the gap of time.

In retrospect, Tony now wondered if the presentation of that strand of seiðr, which he'd taken more or less as Loki making a friendly offer to type his digits into Tony's phone, had actually meant a hell of a lot more than he'd thought.

Beloved? Tony asked himself, knowing Loki couldn't hear him, but really, really wishing that the god could, because while that particular word wasn't exactly one he'd expected to hear, it also wasn't one he exactly felt the need to argue about, and he would have liked Loki to know that.

The Sanctum Sanctorum, Loki mused. Why do they feel the need for such a name? When a being has achieved adulthood in a place called "The Golden City," center of a homeland known as "The Realm Eternal" and still finds a name pretentious, one really should reconsider one's choices.

He gazed around the dimly-lighted space. The stairs hadn't yet suffered the destruction of Bruce's interstellar crash landing, but everything else around the apparent main entrance to Stephen Strange's Sorcerer Supreme Lair looked more or less the same as the last time Tony saw it--in other words, like a cross between the dusty display hall of a small town historical museum and an unpopular family-owned funeral home somewhere in the Deep South.

Peering through the gloom, Tony finally managed to make out the shape of Loki's traveling companions. Natasha was clinging to a plinth, incidentally the same plinth he himself had used to perform his post-run stretches (and how exactly, had Pepper ever convinced him that going on runs together would be a Fun Couple Activity, when he'd spent most of his life living by the words of his one-time MIT Mech. E. mentor, the interestingly-named Professor Rohan Abeyaratne: "I might run... If I was chased by BEARS!"). Nat appeared to have dislodged the Cauldron of the Cosmos, which now sat at her feet, the better for the time travelling Super-Spy to use it as a barf bucket.

If merely stretching near the damn thing had earned Tony a solid thwap from Strange's Cloak of Pomposity, he didn't like to think what the future held for poor Natasha, but she seemed to be doing better than Steve, in that she'd at least arrived in the past upright and conscious, while Cap lay sprawled out and dead to the world on the Sanctum Sanctorum's hardwood floor.

Loki patted Cap's cheek a couple times, clearly hoping to wake him, then retracted a glove to touch Steve's forehead with his now-bare fingertips, finding the skin there chill and clammy.

"Agent Romanov?" he asked quietly.

Natasha waved a shaky hand, a gesture that clearly meant, "Give me a fucking minute!"

"I'm sorry," Loki told her, with what sounded like genuine sympathy. "I know the sensation is... difficult."

Yeah, you could call it that, Tony thought. Loki himself, he'd become aware, felt like utter crap, every bit as shaky and nauseated as Natasha, but with that rigid control held over every outward sign.

And now the great man himself arrives, Loki commented, turning to watch as Doctor Strange, all blue blouse, red cape, and superiority complex, came wafting down not-yet-splintered staircase, the far more stolid (and nine million times less pretentious) Wong stumping down the steps at his side.

"Loki of Asgard," Strange said, touching down lightly in his shiny black boots.

Tony guessed he spent a lot of his spare time practicing the move.

"And Jötunheimr," the Sorcerer Supreme added, either an afterthought or (more likely) a deliberate insult. "You've evaded my trap... this time."

Tony felt the stretch of Loki's smile, but otherwise the god said nothing.

"Céngjīng de báichī zǒng shì báichī," Wong said, with a grin and gentle headshake.

"'Once an idiot, always an idiot,'" Loki translated. "To which of us, I wonder, does your friend refer?"

"Both. Neither. Myself, maybe," Wong replied philosophically, conjuring up a red plastic bucket to offer Nat in place of the ancient mystical artifact, then moving past his partner-in-magic to offer her a supporting arm and escort her to a chair that hadn't been there seconds before. By its side stood a small occasional table, topped with a tray that held a glass of water and a box of Kleenex.

"You are gracious, Mr. Wong," Loki told him. "Our thanks."

"See, Steve?" Wong said with a grin. "Manners! If you practice, you might have some too, and then our nice visitors from the future can explain why they're here, and with luck we won't have yet another knock down, drag out fight, and we also won't have to replace the drapes for the third time this year."

At this point, in lieu of the manners his companion suggested, Strange directed a haughty glare down his nose at Loki, which given the god's several-inches-greater height and glare-proof attitude in general (along with the desperation that Loki couldn't, and wouldn't, allow to show, considering they had only one chance and this was it), seemed to result in one of the Sorcerer Supreme's weaker efforts.

Natasha attended to, Wong turned next to Steve, sliding a pair of pillows under their fearless leader's legs. "It's supposed to help, but he's out cold, and I'm guessing he'll stay that way at least until you're ready to leave. Too bad. I assume you brought him along to sweet-talk the boss?"

He glanced at Natasha, currently slumped over her own knees with a wad of tissues clamped to her mouth.

"Her too, huh?" Wong added. "That's a shame."

"We'll not tarry long, Doctor," Loki said, his eyes locking with Strange's. "Had I hoped that Agent Romanov's well-reasoned words might sway you? Or that you might find the presence of Captain Rogers, a hero of unquestioned honor and untarnished reputation, somewhat persuasive?"

Uh... possibly stretching the truth there a little, Lok, on that one, Tony thought. When it comes to Steve-o, it kinda depends on who you ask.

"An object you control is crucial to our victory, and you must be persuaded to release it to our temporary custody. We cannot fail in our task. Had I intended to use my fellow-travelers' talents to these ends? Of course I had, for our need is dire, and I'd be a fool if I failed to do so. What general would not use his best weapons, indeed to make use of every resource at his disposal, should he hope to win the war?"

"I hold a number of objects," Strange answered, his voice flat and cold. "Purely out of curiosity, which do you seek?"

What an utter prick this guy is, Tony thought, To the point, even, of having his own unique level of prickishness, like pretty much the deepest, darkest circle of prick hell.

In that moment, Tony knew it wasn't going to happen, that the whole trip would turn out to be a bust. Team Time Travel had gone all that way, used all that energy, faced danger Tony felt fairly certain he couldn't begin to comprehend, and for what? Strange wouldn't listen, he wouldn't bend. Loki would never be able to convince him and nothing would ever, ever be fixed.

Are you doubting me so soon? Loki asked, nearly laughing--for all the seriousness of that moment. Do you truly forget? I am a god, foolish mortal--have you so little faith?

Borrowing Nebula's little trick of moving without seeming to move, Loki grabbed Strange's arm before the Sorcerer Supreme could even think of reacting, much less call up one of his magical glowy Spirograph circles. His other palm pressed flat against the former surgeon's forehead, and Loki opened up his mind to spill out everything he'd seen, from the god's own experience, and from the minds of those now struggling to win their worlds back again.

So much death. So much destruction.

So much dust.

Too much dust, too much loss, too much grief for anything to ever seem clean, or right, or complete again.

"Give me this," Loki said, as the pictures faded, as Strange, that arrogant, unflappable man hunched over on his knees, clinging to the god's hands.

"Give us this, and though we can't promise that all will be healed, I will vow, as will my companions, that we'll fight for that end with every breath in us. I, Loki of Asgard, Odin's son, do swear by my second life, given back to me only for this end, by my blood, and by my new-found honor, that I if take this Stone from you, Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme of Midgard, it will be used only to one end: the utter defeat of Thanos of Titan, the undoing of his evil works, and the restoration of all worlds. When these deeds have been accomplished, I likewise swear, then will this Stone be returned to you, unsullied, by my own hand

The eye-shaped amulet Strange wore around his neck hung open, empty, the light it once held hanging suspended, like a small, brilliant, fertile planet, in the air between him and Loki. The Sorcerer Supreme's face seemed aged, twisted--though Tony once would have found it hard to believe the guy capable of experiencing any outward-reaching emotion whatsoever--by the horror of the future sights that had flashed, one after another after another, through his head, until even the thought of one more image had become unbearable.

"You're not a god, Loki," he said, finally, in a low, harsh voice. "Only a being, mortal and fallible like the rest of us. Why should you succeed in this, when so many other, better, men failed?"

"True enough, I suppose," Loki said with a shrug, clenching his black-gloved right hand into a fist. "Maybe because, now and then, I do have my moments?"

When his fingers unfolded, the Time Stone shone green and bright in the cup of his palm.

Chapter Text

Even knowing that the mission was complete and Loki (and his oh-so-helpful companions) on their way home again, for Tony to actually  witness his very own god of takin' care of business materialize, in a series of green-light pulses, safely back on the launchpad, seemed to him like the fulfillment of an impossible wish, the kind of wish no one really ever expects to come true.

Only it had. Of course it had. Tony never doubted that Loki would succeed in his quest, not for an instant, but at the same time, in a total contradiction of that absolute faith, he'd also been terrified.

Man was, indeed, a giddy thing.

The minute that first green pulse of light bloomed in front of him, Tony suddenly felt as if his lungs had permission to inflate again, and his heart to beat.

Shakily, he pushed himself up from the section of rubber matting--slightly away from the console--where Bruce had clearly placed him in hopes of Tony not getting stepped on too many times. Tony even managed not to really be any worse for wear, post face-plant, except that his knees still felt a little watery, and a small patch of skin over his left cheekbone had sustained a bruise, all of which definitely fell into "okay, big whoop" territory, as something not even worth a mention. 

Meanwhile, there Loki stood, like a stretched-out evening shadow in his nanotech suit, the mask and cowl just beginning to retract from his face and head, with Steve's manly form slung over one shoulder and Natasha tucked under the opposite arm.

That, too, struck Tony almost as something beyond the realm of possibility--not only that the team had actually, unbelievably, traveled through fucking time, and that everything had worked out (more-or-less) as planned, barring Natasha's unscheduled upchucking (Tony had to wonder if Strange's Crockpot of the Cosmos would ever be the same again) and Steve's meaningful contribution of spending the entire visit passed out on Strange's floor, but that Loki had, literally, done all the heavy lifting on this one, and done it excellently, despite the huge cloud of everyone-but-Tony's total lack of faith in him hanging over his head. Even Thor, whose love for his brother could no longer be disputed, couldn't have been listed as anything more positive than "hopeful, but doubting."

And speaking of heavy lifting, how impossible did it appear that someone as spectrally thin as Loki was currently could carry the other two so nonchalantly, as if they weighed nothing? It looked like some kind of magic trick, only Vegas-style rather than Loki-style. Yes, Tony knew from personal experience how strong the god of lots of other stuff that wasn't mischief could be (let the throat-gripping, full-body-lifting, and subsequent window-tossing never again be mentioned). The Lokester was also, after all, Asgardian. Or half-Asgardian/half Jötunn.

Jötgardian, maybe?

Astunnian?

Tony found himself giggling at that last one. Unintentionally, of course. He felt half drunk--more than half drunk--without having taken a sip for more days than he could remember, really.

Astunnian? Loki repeated, with a kind of mental shudder. Never again think of me as such, or all ends between us.

Oh, babe, I can't... I mean, I didn't mean... And you are, in no conceivable way, an Astunniun. If anything, you are the total opposite of an Astunnian.

No response. Crickets only.

I really am sorry, babe. I am, I was just so, so afraid, and now... Is giddy the word I want? I kinda think it might be.

No need, the god answered abruptly, and Tony was taken aback for a moment, wondering if Loki, seriously, had been offended.

His fears lasted exactly as long as it took Loki to dump his two companions onto the matting and stagger toward his brother, growling out a word that sounded strangely like "salami" through gritted teeth, at which point Tony realized what he'd picked up hadn't been rage, only profound and undeniable time-travel-sickness, and that, as opposed to feeling a sudden urgent need for Italian sausage of any variety whatsoever, he was really, really hoping Thor would convey him, with all possible speed, toward the nearest restroom.

Thor, helpful bro that he was, wrapped one mighty arm around his brother's waist and hustled him away.

A couple of green sparks floated sluggishly by Tony's face, and his connection to Loki cut off abruptly.

Babe? he tried, but got no words back in return, only an image of a door closed firmly in his face. This from the guy who'd held him so tenderly and soothingly during Tony's unfortunate time beneath the leaves of the boring banana tree.

His poor baby.

"So, no joy?" Bruce asked, his voice quiet, but tight with tension. A series of fine lines had appeared around his ScienceBro's eyes, and bracketing his mouth. They weren't a prelude to the appearance of a large green dude who smashed random things, just a part of the more commonplace melancholy Bruce seemed to carry with him more days than not, the way regular people carried umbrellas when it rained.

Only multiply that by a thousand, at least, since Thanos, and the Snap.

Tony had even given those lines in Bruce's face a name: The Lines of No Good Can Come of This.

"No," Tony answered, as Bruce knelt by Natasha's side, gently brushing back her fiery hair to better see her face. Her fair skin still held a greenish tinge, but the eyelid Tony could see had already started fluttering. In his admittedly non-expert opinion, after a long nap and a couple bottles of Gatorade, she'd probably be fine.

"Or yes, I mean." Tony's voice sounded weird, even to himself. Inside, he felt ecstatic, because Loki had done it, he had, he'd gotten the Stone from the pompous goat-fucker himself, despite all odds, and then brought his team safely home. Tony, though, had been so stressed, so afraid, so adrift in the bizarreness  of experiencing the world through Loki-colored glasses that his voice didn't seem to have received the "A-Okay" signal yet, the "All Clear!" and came out sounding more tragic than jubilant.

His ScienceBro glanced up, looking patient and resigned, the lines growing ever deeper. "So, okay. We get Steve and Natasha to Medlab, get them on their feet again, and then..." He let out a sigh. "Nat's pulse is a little fast, but not dangerously so. Her temp seems fine. I think she's okay, though she and Steve should definitely be checked out in depth. Who knows what effect time travel--Loki-style or otherwise--has on a human body?"

"Whoa. Bruce. It's okay." Tony forced a grin, though his face still seemed strangely reluctant to really go along with his commands, and he suspected the result might have appeared more gruesome than encouraging. "I'll let you go on to planning your next scientific masterpiece, 'The Effects of Time Travel on Human Physiology,' by Dr. Robert Bruce Banner, in a minute. Meanwhile, bro, wrap your mind around this--Loki did it! He got the Stone!"

Bruce, eyes blinking owlishly behind his glasses, acted like he hadn't heard. After a minute or so, he lifted Natasha, not without a little awkwardness--non-Hulk Bruce wasn't in bad shape, but his was the kind of not-bad-shape that came from long, solitary walks, spiritually-centered yoga, and maybe planting trees or helping build community gardens. Tony would have been very surprised if Bruce had ever in his life darkened the doorway of a gym, and so, lifting a full-grown woman, even one as petite as Nat, was doable, but not exactly effortless.

"Bring Steve, okay?" Bruce called over his shoulder as he lurched away. "I'll send a gurney."

"Uh, Stark... Do you think he quite caught what you said?" Rocket asked.

"The warrior defeated in his heart," Nebula said, "Only sees further defeat."

Which... okay. Thanks for that one, Nebs.

Tony wanted to tell her Bruce wasn't defeated in his heart, if that's what she'd meant, that Bruce would soon shake himself out of this and be with them 100%.

He just didn't know if that was true.

"How much d'ya think this guy weighs?" Rocket asked, prodding Steve's muscular thigh with a back paw. "'Cause, gurney or not, until Thor gets back, I say we leave him on the floor." 

Tony and Steve might not have been the bestest best friends anymore, and it wasn't like Cap appeared to be bleeding out any orifices, but Tony still felt bad just leaving their fearless leader down there in the proverbial dirt. He knelt, feeling the pulse in Steve's neck tap-tapping away, slow and steady, just as he'd expected.

He glanced up, only to see Thor looming over him, and for about the hundredth time wondered how in hell the thunder god did it. Tony tended to be twitchy at the best of times. He always knew where the exits were and fucking noticed his surroundings, yet a guy of Thor's hugeness, even wearing those crappy, shuffle-y sandals, could sneak up on him totally undetected. It must have been some kind of Asgardian Ninja training.

"Friend Tony?" Thor boomed. Tony never could tell if the god did it on purpose, just to mess with him, or not.

"Hey, Point Break!" he answered, as if Thor hadn't just startled the crap out of him, his voice only cracking once. "Is Loki okay, and could you maybe...?" He gestured toward Steve's prone body.

"Ah. Yes." The god of thunder picked Steve up with slightly less effort than Tony would have taken to pick up a baby. A tiny, tiny baby. "Loki says he is well, and will join us soon, that Captain Rogers and Natasha ought to be given many fluids with raflausn, in them, and that you are by no means to enter the salerni, or he will curse your workshop with an infestation of illa hugsanir." 

This said, Thor ambled away toward the infirmary, carrying Steve bride-style in his arms.

"There needs to be pictures," Rocket said. "Tell me there will be pictures?"

"Boss," Friday said in Tony's ear, "Mr. Loki has requested that I act as a translator should he or Mr. Thor use any Aes word with which you're unfamiliar."

Which would, give or take, be basically all of them, Tony thought.

"He did, did he?" Tony subvocalized, "And who programmed you with those words, Miss Friday?"

Like he needed to ask?. 

"If I may," Fri answered blithely, totally ignoring his question, "Mr. Thor just informed you that the Captain and Agent Romanov should be given fluids with added electrolytes--information I've already conveyed to Dr. Banner. He also related that Mr. Loki wishes that you stay away from the restroom at this present time, and suggests that if you do not, he will fill your workshop with evil pixies."

Nebula actually laughed--one short, gruff laugh--that same laugh she'd given when Tony let her win at paper football, and her whole face had lighted up, for the first time turning bright and full of delight. There, he'd thought, without Scraps needing to say a word, Sits a girl who never got to win, even once, at any damn thing.

He also suspected that those two harsh, almost devoid-of-humor laughs made up Nebula's lifetime total.

That being the case, though, Tony almost had to wonder if evil pixies might actually be a thing. If so, he'd be finding out soon enough, supposing Loki might actually be serious, not just embarrassed to have a sometimes-fallible physical body just like everyone else.

"Catch up with you at Medlab, guys," he told the others. "I'm goin' in."

Tony didn't bother to knock before breezing (keepin' it casual, always casual) through the men's room door. For one thing, public convenience, open to all, for another, if Loki hadn't already sensed Tony's approach, he'd be beyond answering a knock anyway.

Loki maybe wasn't actually beyond anything, as such, but he also, clearly, wasn't enjoying life in any way. Tony found him in exactly the spot where he'd expected to find him, which was sitting on the floor in easy lunging-proximity to the toilet, his back propped against the industrial-gray concrete wall. 

Tony had never seen anyone look less physically comfortable in his life. Loki wasn't even blue, at the moment, more of a shade of industrial gray that color-coordinated with the concrete. Even the nanotech suit had pulled away from him, and currently lay puddled between his feet, half in and half out of its storage-vessel.

"Hey, you," Tony said, in a tone that he meant to sound sympathetic, though it seemed to rub Loki the wrong way. Right then, he suspected, any tone whatsoever would have struck his poor suffering god the wrong way.

"Indeed," Loki responded, lifting his head from his knees and glaring. "I was immediately aware of your presence. You, however, may not be aware that such a concept exists as privacy. That would be what I asked for, and what you have denied me."

"Oh, I'm aware." Tony slid down the wall to sit beside him. He stroked a few loose, sweat-dripping strands of Loki's hair back from his grayed-out face. "Just juggling a few thoughts about why you really don't want me here."

"Aside from the obvious? I happen to be regrouping."

"Regrouping. Okay. Is that the same as 'physically drained, feeling gross, trying really hard not to throw up and rightfully feeling wounded because even though you did a kick-ass job and literally carried the team, everyone--your own brother included--jumped to the conclusion that you must have fucked up the mission?' That kind of regrouping?"

Loki stared at Tony for a long while, his eyes weary, bloodshot, and showing, for the first time, what looked like every minute of his thousand-plus years of experience.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Tony asked. "Even if I hadn't been with you for the whole thing, and seen--and thank you, by the way, for turning down the volume on that, like a thousand notches, because my tiny Midgardian brain is so not equipped--I wouldn't have jumped to that conclusion. I wouldn't, Lok."

He reached out for Loki's hand (Loki's equally-gray, clammy, and more-than-slightly-shaky hand), folding it between both of his own, as Loki slumped over to let his head rest on Tony's shoulder.

"See, I expected that, even with the machine, this thing would be way harder on you than you'd let on to the rest of us. I suspected bringing Nat and Steve just made it even harder, but you were damned if you'd invite any kind of suspicion into your actions. I suspect that your whole life you've been constantly doing totally goddamned amazing things--but, hey, you had a big, blond brother who could hit stuff really hard with a hammer that says he's worthy, so magic, schmagic, right?"

"You do understand, do you not, that at times your every statement seems entirely incomprehensible?" Loki answered, but his body relaxed a little more, pressing closer, and Tony highly suspected he might be smiling.

"And nothing against Thor, because I like the guy, especially lately, but we don't all have to be Thor, do we?"

"Don't we?" Loki responded, his voice silky as ever, but somehow also full of hidden sharp edges.

"No," Tony answered, raising Loki's hand and pressing it to his lips. "No, we really, really don't."

Chapter Text

After a certain amount of time had passed, and no further bouts of toilet-hugging, Loki reached into his pocket universe and retrieved for himself a bottle of vishlar--a bottle his hands proved still too unsteady to open.

"Allow me, my prince," Tony said, adopting a fake "loyal family retainer voice," like a butler in an old black-and-white movie. He knew the trick of the way-too-complicated-for-any-kind-of-hangover-cure fastening now, and was able to release the clasp with a minimum of fuss, quite unlike his fumble-fingered first attempt.

As the restroom filled with the smells of fresh peaches and apple blossom, Loki took a cautious sip (his "yucky medicine face" proved to be pretty hilarious, but Tony held back his desire to laugh), fought an obvious but ultimately successful battle against his own gag reflex, then sipped again.

After a third sip, he sighed, recapped the bottle, and climbed to his feet. "And now..."

"Now you rest, babe." Tony got to his own feet and slipped his arm around Loki's waist. "I'm assuming Steve and Nat are still down for the count?"

Loki gave a minuscule nod, the very picture of a guy trying to keep his head as still as inhumanly possible, the better to avoid setting the world around him spinning again.

"So..." Tony opened the door and ushered the god of no sudden movements through, maintaining a steady hold against Loki's barely-controlled tendency, without that added support, toward both weaving and stumbling. Anyone with less iron force of will would have probably been dragging himself down the hall on his hands and knees, whimpering in his misery.

"The effects are not so dire as that," Loki protested--but, when they finally reached Tony's room, he still did a slow, careful collapse onto the edge of their recently-shared bed, letting out a soft sound that he almost certainly would have protested wasn't a groan.

"So, the energy-booster gadget I was so damn proud of--not such a success?"

"The touchpoints you constructed of the Vibranium, that which Her Majesty of Wakanda so graciously supplied..." Loki just seemed to drift off at that point, staring into space.

"Queen Ramonda," Tony reminded him gently.

"Yes. Yes. Queen Ramonda. Her gift proved invaluable, and your design... Without these there would by no means be..." Another drift-off, complete with thousand-mile stare.

"Keeping you awake and talking just isn't fair," Tony told him. "A couple more gulps of vishlar, if you can manage, then it's off to dreamland for good little wizards, okay?"

Loki grumbled something about the differences between wizards versus mages, and possibly something else about uninformed Midgardians but then, half-grudgingly, half-obligingly, forced down another two swallows of the restorative SpaceFanta, after which the bottle just kind of dropped out of his hand, Tony only just managing to catch it. Not seeming to notice, the god of complete discombobulation tugged on the shirt--half tunic and half long-sleeved tee, and now crumpled and sweat-soaked--that he'd worn beneath his nanosuit. For the moment, the movements involved in pulling a shirt off over his head seemed to elude him, and so Tony set the bottle on the nightstand and took over the job.

Before the mission, Tony had painstakingly hand-taped his clever device, intended to prevent exactly this kind of energy burnout, against Loki's smooth blue chest, using a special energy-conductive tape he himself had designed--the same tape that had now all but burned away, revealing the intricate components of the device itself, currently blackened and twisted, some all but melted into Loki's skin.

"Yikes," Tony breathed, Loki's shirt dropping out of his hand and onto the floor. "Loki, why didn't you say?"

He got no answer, only Loki pulling up his legs and collapsing backward onto the bed.

"If you got up, maybe, just for a sec...?" Tony said. He tried to keep his voice light but, the truth was, he felt semi-horrified, both at the total failure of his engineering skills and the fact that, by that failure, he'd literally hurt someone he cared for, his so-called help only adding to Loki's distress, maybe even causing him to bleed power instead of keep it in the loop. It wasn't even so much that he'd made the device wrong, technically speaking (at least Tony didn't think so), it was that he'd so badly underestimated how much raw power Loki actually could command when he put his mind to it.

On his last visit, Tony reminded himself, Loki wasn't trying. At all. This time he pulled out all the stops.

So, Rule #1: never forget that a god, even one who shares your bed, is a god, with all that entails.

"Not possible," Loki answered, shivering now, along with everything else, so instead Tony beat a retreat to the corridor, first to pull the First Aid Kit down from its clamps on the wall, next to the linen closet, where at least he was able to find a couple of fresh duvets on the shelves that didn't look too dispirited.

"Friday," he called out, as he shut the closet door behind him, also automatically switching off the light inside. "What d'you think? Maybe all new linens for Avengers HQ? Nothing but the best for Earth's mightiest? How about new mattresses and stuff while we're at it? This fucking place, as is, makes me despondent."

"Not surprising," the A.I. answered, "Considering your frame of mind when we made the original requisitions." She paused. "I thought you should know, boss--the pantries, medical and all other supplies have been fully restocked, in case of..."

"In case of," Tony echoed dully. He knew what she meant. In case of social breakdown. In case of looting and pillaging. In case, when people came out of this first stage of dull grief and shock and moved into a time of rage, or greed, when the shortages kicked in, and the attitudes of too many people out there changed to "who-the-hell-cares-when-there's-nothing-left-to-lose," or "time to look out for number one."

When civilization, as they knew it, started to just... collapse.

How many days remained, Tony had to wonder, before they hit the point of no return?

Because people could be wonderful (and by people, he meant sentient beings). People could help, care, bond together, be amazing neighbors--but people could be horrible too, and you never actually knew which you were going to get.

Tony stood in the dimly-lighted corridor, the two semi-fluffy duvets bunched up against chest. "Uh, Friday..."

"Boss?" she asked, gentle-voiced, just like a real girl.

"Two things. One, see if you can get Miss Potts, Mr. Hogan, any of our other people to come here. For safety. If they won't, set up whatever extra security they'll accept, and contingency plans that will get them here if the shit hits the fan."

"Right boss," Friday answered. "And the second thing?"

"Let's get some aid out there. To whoever needs it, wherever its needed. Food, water, medical, security, expertise, whatever's required. Let Miss Potts know that, until further notice, holding back the flood waters--figuratively speaking, I hope--is Stark Industries new business. Got that?"

"Yes, boss." Fri's voice had gone quiet. She sounded--for lack of a better word--stunned, as if the new world order and all it might possibly mean had just then sunk in.

Tony knew how that felt, and maybe he built his electronic friends too well, or maybe she was mirroring him. His shock. His fear. His sadness.

He returned to his room, where Loki still lay, face up on the bed, sweating and shivering, though he must have roused, at least for a little, since only about a third of the SpaceFanta remained in its fancy bottle.

Tony didn't bother asking Loki if he felt better. He suspected the god wouldn't appreciate such a stupid question being asked of him, anymore than Tony himself did in similar situations. Instead, moving slowly and carefully, so as not to jolt or otherwise disturb him, he perched on the side of the bed, beginning the slow and cringe-worthy process of peeling all that tape and not-so-genius invention off Loki's burned chest.

It must have hurt like hell, the skin scorched and blistered wherever the wires touched, but Loki didn't even blink.

He didn't say a word, either, until Tony had covered him over first with one, then the other of the duvets.

"Stupid," the god forced out from between teeth he'd clearly clenched to stop them from chattering. "Foolish."

"Seems to me like you did fine," Tony told him, knowing at once who Loki meant--Christ, the two of them were alike, zero to total self-blame in less than sixty seconds. "Mission accomplished, right?"

"Yesss," Loki snapped, all that shivering giving his silky, persuasive voice a certain snake-like quality, like Kaa in the Disney Jungle Book when he was a kid.

Trussst in me... Jussst in me...

"Time Stone," Loki added, sounding irritated--maybe at having been, mentally at least, compared to a cartoon snake.

"Ssshow..."

Tony started as a small, square something popped out of the air somewhere just above his head. He barely managed to catch this mysterious object before it plunked into Loki's shoulder, then nearly dropped it again because the cube was so much heavier than he expected, far heavier than a comparable amount of lead, made of a metal he didn't immediately recognize, dull gray, but with an almost-iridescent sheen.

Unable to help himself, Tony fiddled with the thing for a few minutes, as if it was some kind of ultra-minimalist Rubik's Cube, half surprised, half not when a edge shifted and the cube opened up like a series of water lilies, each circle of petals smaller than the last, until, it its heart, he found the Stone, green, shining, and the size of an almond.

It should have seemed inconsequential, like a little translucent nugget with, maybe, an LED inside it. A bauble. A magic trick. A toy. Only it didn't. Even his totally unmagical self felt the power in it, that same hair-raising hum of something he'd felt from the Mind Stone and the Tesseract, a weird vibration that seemed to creep in under his skin, even under his finger- and toenails.

Listen to me...

Use me...

USE me...

"Close the box," Loki commanded. "Show them. Others. Close it again."

Tony wasn't going to argue. The Stone, in fact, didn't tempt him at all, whatever it said. Mostly, it just skeeved him out.

One tiny squeeze, though, and the box snapped shut, in a series of dry little clicks, like lizard-claws on tile.

Which, frankly, struck him as one of the weirder analogies he'd ever come up with, but maybe the only one that really fit, in terms of both the dryness and the cold of the noise.

"Do you hear it too?" Tony asked. "How does it sound?"

"Different. It wants..." A pause. "It wants."

"But we can use it, right? I mean... you already used it? To come home?"

Loki made a strange sound, one it took Tony a few seconds to interpret as... laughter, maybe? Or something. He dropped the Time Stone, once more safely encased in its box, onto the nightstand and dug Loki out of his duvet burrow. "Babe? Baby? Are you okay?"

Loki squinted up at him, his eyes the merest slivers of green. He didn't say anything.

"Fuck." Tony ran his fingers back through his hair. "You forgot, didn't you? You went into that starving and exhausted, gave yourself a major whammy, still got the job done, then forgot you had an express pass home. Thereby doubling the whammy effect."

"Benighted fool," Loki answered, gripping Tony's other wrist. "Must do better. Must."

"Oh, babe," Tony murmured, kneeling by the bed, stroking Loki's damp hair away from his face. "Sometimes everything seems so impossible, maybe we just forget things can be easy now and then. And forgetting, by the way, doesn't take away from the amazingness of you."

Loki made a sound that probably meant disagreement, but didn't actually argue the point. Maybe he just lacked the strength.

Tony stayed with him there, still kneeling, watching Loki's face until it relaxed a little and his breathing deepened, most of the shivers finally having gone away.

"Sleep well," he said, softly so that Loki wasn't disturbed. "Try to rest, my honey, and I'll be back soon."

He pushed the little metal box that held the Time Stone deep into the pocket of his Levis, and went in search of Bruce.

Chapter Text

The twenty-four hours following Team Time Travel's reappearance in the Wayback Machine started off relatively Avengers-normal. So to speak.

Although it might be a given that Avengers-normal and normal-normal didn't have all that much in common (the Avengers life tending to run a little long on near-death experiences, a little short on the comforting and the mundane), from all that Tony had observed, the one area where the two types of normal did seem to overlap, in a big way, had to be in the area of things being carefully planned, then turning out nothing at all like the way anyone had hoped for, or expected.

In everyone else's opinion, for example, the peak result of their careful planning would have been for Steve to stride off the launchpad (totally unscathed, it went without saying), with the Time Stone grasped firmly in one manly, All-American hand and an air of humble virtue wafting around him. Equally positive would be for Nat to ninja her way home, then proceed to produce the Stone from some part of her sprayed-on outfit that any rational person would've sworn couldn't conceal so much as a lentil. The rest of them would, naturally, spend large amounts of time wondering how she'd done it. Natasha (being Natasha) would take the secret with her to the grave.

They would, nonetheless, know she'd done something mind-bogglingly clever, all without her uttering so much as a word.

Either Steve or Nat, it also, of course, went without saying, would have been praised to the skies. They were, after all, real heroes. Capital-H Heroes, the kind who were expected to save the day.

That anyone, after all they'd been through, still expected their plans to turn out, or the right people to win... Honestly, Tony didn't know what to say. Was it touching? Infuriating? Willfully blind?

Probably all three. "Bless their hearts," Pepper's Georgia born-and-bred Nana would probably say, in that sweet little old Southern lady way that actually meant, "Y'all are idiots and fools."

Since those two had basically needed to be dragged back to the present, empty-handed and on their asses, the mission was clearly to be regarded as a failure--which, the truth be told, was in no way not Avengers-normal. These things happened to them all the fucking time, it was hardly unexpected--and, hey, at least this time they had a scapegoat, an actual villain to blame, that stereotypical Bad Guy who screwed things up for everybody.

The only novelty in the situation was that Tony usually occupied that position, instead of Loki, and got to be on the receiving end of all the disappointed looks.

Loki hadn't been wrong, really, in comparing himself to Mythology Girl, the one he'd referenced before, the one who'd talked, and told the truth, but nobody listened--and Tony guessed that he, too, had kind of become Mythology-Girl-by-association, because no one seemed to hear him either. He'd even shot off an overly-excited text to Rhodey--"got stone #1!!!" 

His best friend's answer? Nada. Zero. Zilch.

Bitter? Nah, he wasn't bitter.

Actually, Tony felt bitter as hell, but why bother sharing? Who the fuck would care?

Contrary to popular belief, he hated to feel like this, hated for his pessimistic predictions to come true. Or, at least, partially true. Not everyone had actually hopped on the "never trust a villain to do a hero's work (even when the heroes are incapable and the so-called villain isn't)" bandwagon.

Thor certainly hadn't. Of course, Thor also seemed pretty out of things, as if he'd either sucked down those two bottles of full-proof Everclear (and possibly the hammer as well), Bruce's recommended treatment for Asgardian mental distress, or else something from Loki's magical arsenal was keeping him glued together emotionally speaking. 

Nebula and Rocket both clearly knew that Loki had returned with the Time Stone, but seemed to have decided to kick back and say nothing, at least for the time being--either because they still felt like total outsiders, and thought it wasn't their place, or because the sight of Terrans acting like total idiots befuddled and/or amused them. Who knew?

Maybe everything just felt upside-down and backwards for them, too, the same way it did for everyone else, and as if nothing in this world, or any other, could be depended on again, not when magic existed, and Cosmic Forces beyond everyone's control, and an evil California Raisin could snap away half of all life in the Universe, making everything seem temporary, impermanent, subject to the whims of all-powerful beings they'd had no idea even existed.

All of it made Tony feel adrift, cut loose from his usual habits, even those of shadowing Bruce when he was trying to work and bugging him with unsolicited advice on how to do his job, or hiding in his workshop, drinking extra-strong coffee and tinkering. He could have built a new, improved Magic Preserver that didn't melt through its own wires and blister Loki's skin, or buried himself in whatever the hell else he could find to take up all his time and consciousness, so that he didn't actually have to sleep (and, thereby, possibly dream), or think, or in unguarded moments, imagine, for some reason, that he heard Peter Parker's bright, enthusiastic young voice.

Only he didn't. Instead, Tony buried himself in his quarters, in that dismal little room with its concrete walls, partly because of the aforementioned bitterness, but mostly because, even after the lights had been turned low and Loki lay deeply and (apparently) peacefully asleep, tucked in snugly beneath the duvets, he couldn't stand to leave his tired god of pure, undiluted amazingness alone.

He found himself perching on the edge of the bed, first with his eyes shut and a hand resting on Loki's back, breathing as he breathed, the slow rise and fall of his chest reminding Tony, somehow, of all the times he'd stood alone beneath the moon and stars on his private beach in Malibu, barefoot and curling his toes into the cool sand, listening to the distant roar of the breakers and the slow wash of the tide: out... in... out... in...

Later, when that no longer seemed like enough, he found that same hand drifting upward, his fingers weaving into the wild darkness of Loki's hair, not quite as silky now as it had been, but still eminently touchable, still something to get lost in. This time, when Tony shut his eyes, flashes of astounding color flickered and swam behind his lids. He knew he was catching the edges of Loki's dreams, and hoped, for once, that those dreams would remain peaceful, and sweet.

He considered what Loki had told him, and what he himself had said back, that phase, joking in tone, but not at all in intent, about one growing "increasingly fond" of the other, and knew that, while "love" might still be too strong a word to say so soon, "fond," like so many other words that got used around and about these kind of situations, words like "attracted" or "infatuated" or "obsessed" seemed too weak, too flimsy, too hollow, most of all wrong, because with Loki he wanted not just to be brave, but stalwart, maybe even actually heroic himself instead of just a smart guy with a big ego and an intermittent death wish who sometimes zoomed around the skies in a super-powered suit.

Tony wanted to laugh at himself for being so ridiculous, for thinking of himself for even five seconds as some kind of knight in shining armor instead of just a burned-out, bitter, middle-aged man who, if asked only recently, would have said he considered himself fresh out of hopes and dreams.

Only he wanted to be that now, the shining hero. He did.

Tony bent down, kissing Loki's temple just below the velvety, still-growing-back horn before burying his face in rampant curls, breathing in nothing but Loki's scent, saltier than usual, but still completely Loki.

His heart, battered as it was, physically and emotionally, untrusting, incomplete, felt, for the first time in his life, as if it might actually be capable of healing, and Tony wasn't entirely certain if he found that feeling hopeful or terrifying.

"Take cake care of yourself, babe?" he found himself murmuring. "Rest, and get strong, okay?"

He had to force himself to leave, and maybe wouldn't even have managed if the devil on his shoulder hadn't hissed, Those assholes need to have a big ol' "I told you so!" pie shoved in their sanctimonious faces. 

Or maybe, whispered the slightly-worse-for-wear angel on his other shoulder, You just want them to see the one you love as you see him, as someone brave, and skilled, and just as worthy as his brother.

No one said love, Tony told the angel. Did I say love?

Who the hell, the devil answered, Do you actually think you're fooling?

Tony found himself grinning. Who indeed?

Still smiling, Loki's Stone-holding puzzle box a definitive lump in his pocket, he headed off to the Medlab.

 

Bruce had installed Steve and Natasha in the first two of the Medlab's three berths, while Nebula, Thor and Rocket lined up on the edge of third bed, looking like... well, an awful lot like a trio of raccoons perched on a fence, if one of the trio was kind of the Godzilla of its species.

The three of them watched in silence as Bruce hunted and pecked on a keyboard, most likely entering treatment plans for the human members of Team Time Travel, oblivious as usual to the fact that Friday could have entered the same exact same data in about a zillionth of the time.

That was the difference, though, between Tony and his ScienceBro. Sad experience had taught Bruce to take his time, not to hurry, to be methodical, while Tony tended to head into every activity at the fastest possible speed. The few times he'd let Tony lead him astray, into his own breakneck way of doing things, Bruce nearly always came to regret it.

Let the Ultron debacle never again be mentioned.

And look where rushing got you, Tony chided himself, feeling something of the same regret. Most of what had Loki currently down for the count was undoubtedly the tremendous physical toll of performing such a demanding feat of magic as moving backwards along the time-stream, but still, Tony couldn't quite prevent the image of having to peel melted tape and fried-out circuits off Loki's blistered skin from  replaying itself, GIF-like, over and over inside his head.

Naturally, when they'd been building the damn thing, Bruce had argued for running a couple more tests, for taking another measurement (or four) but, no, Tony had been too impressed with himself, convinced that he was about to take a big step forward into melding science and magic, and in the process look like total hot shit in front of Loki.

Total hot shit, as opposed to a big, steaming pile of crap.

Doing things Bruce's way maybe wouldn't have helped Nat or Cap, and he knew Loki wasn't lacking in that spirit of reckless abandon that tended to end up in a "Hey, I wonder what would happen if I tried this?" moment every now and then, with not all of those movements turning out to be... uh... exactly shining. Loki probably wouldn't even hold the equipment failure against him, though Tony had to wonder whether or not the god understood that the stuff Tony built to help him might have actually made things worse, that it might well have siphoned off his magical energy instead of giving it a boost, they way they'd intended.

If so, then the blame for Loki's current state of totally-down-for-the-countness could, in fact, to a large extent be laid squarely at Tony's door.

Now, there was a cheerful thought. Tony didn't know for a fact that that was the case, not 100%, but he did know he could--and should--have been more careful. He should have listened. He should have thought, then thought again.

Tony sucked in a deep breath and pushed these thoughts away as being no good to anyone, least of all to himself. In the end, the mission had come out okay, and that had to be the important thing, the one thing to focus on. Someone, at least, needed to lift the dark cloud currently hanging over the Medlab.  

Except for Bruce's painfully slow tap-tapping, a gloomy silence filled the dimly-lighted room. Thor still looked semi-dazed, Nebula grim (quelle surprise), Rocket like he wanted to bite (or possibly eat) something. Steve was finally awake, sitting propped up in bed with an IV in his arm and the monitors over his head displaying fairly decent numbers. He still looked mournful, maybe a little hazy, and obviously embarrassed, a rosy flush high on his cheekbones.

Natasha's face showed about as much emotion as one of the Stone heads on Easter Island, and Tony pitied any poor fool who dared to ask her how the mission went. Super Spies weren't supposed to, under any circumstances, enter unknown territory and spend the whole time tossing cookies into an ancient mystical artifact. It wasn't done, and Nat, the Superest Spy of them all, would never, ever admit to it, not in a million years.

"Yo, Team Time, you two look better," Tony called out cheerfully as he breezed into their immediate vicinity--every one of the others having been far too caught up in their thoughts to notice his not-exactly-stealthy lurking. "What's up?"

"Bruce knows what he's doing," Nat answered, the stone face cracking slightly to let out a small, tight smile. "He'll have us ready to take another shot soon."

"Not for at least a couple days." Bruce abandoned his keyboard in favor of hand-checking first Natasha's, then Steve's, drips. "No permanent damage, thank god, but their levels were all over the place."

"Nice of Loki to warn us, by the way," Steve said.

"Huh." Tony felt his own grin turn even tighter than Nat's. It couldn't have been pleasant to look at, on any level. "I'm sure you actually meant to say 'It was amazing of Loki to first haul our dead-weight asses all the way there, then back from the past, despite the fact that we contributed exactly nothing.'"

Bruce stared at him, the Lines of No Good Can Come of This deeper than ever before.

"Just so," Thor agreed, nodding, before going on, at his most Asgardian, "I well remember, also, my friends, how Loki warned you at our last meeting, that he knew not how such travel would affect a Midgardian, never having carried your kind with him in the past, yet he feared given the distance and your destination, that the journey might prove difficult indeed. He begged your pardon even, should it be so."

"Sarcastically," Natasha put in. "He wasn't sincere, Thor."

"Do you believe so?"  Thor's voice sounded calm, but the expression in his mismatched eyes, both the real one and the fake one, made Tony shudder just a little. "And blame Loki for your failures, who wished only to help you?"

Rocket rolled his eyes and tugged at Thor's sleeve, but the god didn't seem to notice.

"Blame Loki for what, anyway?" The look on Thor's face made Tony want to cut this short before anything could escalate. The thunder-god, at the best of times, had a little temper, and this was hardly the best of times. This was Thor clearly missing a few cards out of his deck, but nothing whatsoever of his smiting ability.

Tony slid his hand into the pocket of his Levis and fished out the shimmery little puzzle box. "For totally succeeding against impossible odds, maybe?"

"Wait..." Bruce traded looks with his fellow Debbie Downers. "Tony, are you telling us...?" His voice trailed away as Tony stretched out his hand and the box began to open, not in distinct layers, like water lilies this time, but with a rustling noise and a movement like layer after layer of narrow leaves--birch leaves, maybe--folding back on themselves, getting greener and greener the farther down they went, until the Time Stone shone, uncovered, in its small, leafy nest.

"Abracadabra!" Tony said.

Bruce let out a long, slow breath, the Stone's light shining in his mournful eyes.

"May I see?" Natasha reached out, and Tony set the box gently onto her palm, both of them pretending that her hand wasn't shaking, that she wasn't shaking in head to toe shivers, despite the chock full of goodness IV Bruce currently had dripping steadily into her veins.

She glanced over to Cap, her eyes wide with something between shock and childlike wonder. "Steve, I can feel it. I can... Is it real?"

Thor's face had gone dark, his one remaining eye lightning-white clear across. "Real?" he rumbled, causing the hair on the nape of Tony's neck to stand on end. "There is nothing more real in all the Universe!"

 

Chapter Text

"He doesn't look... horrible," Bruce said, positioning his fingers on Loki's wrist, then frowning. "Except for, um, having no pulse whatsoever." 

With the slightly sheepish expression of a guy who doesn't want to offend the doctor by second-guessing his opinion, but maybe, in this case, does actually know better, Thor waved one huge hand to get Tony's attention, then pointed to a spot on his own wrist, a place more centered and higher up the arm than the pulse-point on a human.

Tony, in turn, bent over to correct Bruce's grip, only to see his ScienceBro actually blush a little at his own rookie error.

Non-humans aren't exactly like humans--who would have guessed?

Poor Bruce also seemed to have forgotten that, yes, Friday could just as easily have told him Loki's--or anyone else's--vitals at the drop of a hat, minus the semi-uncomfortable (for Bruce, at least) hand-holding.

At the moment, though, however gently or humorously phrased, it would have felt cruel to remind him. Tony didn't want Bruce to see the nudge as a criticism, especially when his good friend already seemed so stressed, sometimes even a little scattered, and when he'd clearly already taken Loki's mini-snark about his lack of care for the non-Midgardians among them so much to heart.

"We appreciate you coming down here, buddy," Tony told him. "Good to hear Nat and Steve are doing okay."

"Only I could have come earlier to see Loki, right? Or made room for him in Medlab?"

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Bruce Banner! Performing for you tonight his Famous Guilt Spiral!

"Didn't say that, Bruce," Tony said quietly. "Also, not at all what I meant."

"Feel neither guilt nor shame, dear friend, for my brother would most certainly have refused to enter your Chamber of Healing, in any event," Thor rumbled--making Tony startle badly and wonder if his favorite god might not be the only Brodinson now privy to his every thought. "Loki was ever contrary when ill, and reluctant to be confined, and oft-times made his Healers nearly wish that they had chosen another calling."

The corners of Bruce's eyes crinkled, and a grin spread across his face, tired and somewhat world-weary, but still a grin. "You two," he told Tony, pointing first to him, then to the sleeping god of mischief and successful time travel, "Are clearly a match made in heaven--though isn't it opposites that are supposed to attract, not twins separated at birth? God help us all if you guys could reproduce."

"Can you not?" Thor asked, turning one mournful blue eye and one emotionless, mechanical brown eye to stare at Tony.

Bruce and Tony glanced at each other before goggling at Thor in return.

"You are a fine man, and to many, to be so incapable would be a great sorrow," the god of thunder continued, the expression in his real eye shifting to one of genuine commiseration.

"Uh... as far as I know, no particular problems in that area, Point Break," Tony answered, fairly certain his own face now indicated something halfway between, "do we need to have the birds-and-bees talk, buddy?" and "seriously, are you shittin' me?"

"Forgive me, friend Tony, for impugning your manhood, and for the mention of such a delicate subject." Thor took a seat of the opposite side of the bed from Bruce, reaching to brush Loki's hair back from his face with a gentle touch, and obviously believing a change in topic was in order. "It's rare I've seen my brother's hair so, unrestrained by any quelling spell. In his youth, before the full blooming of his seiðr , he wore it cut short, but then the other children would taunt him, telling Loki he resembled a thrall. Such curls, and such abundance were seen as yet another... Were seen as ergi, unmanly. And children will tease, will they not?"

"I had some experience of that myself," Bruce said, "Though for entirely different reasons."

"Yeah, there's always something," Tony put in. "Too big, too small. Too smart, too not-smart. Too rich, too poor. Wrong clothes, too many of the right clothes. It never ends."

"I sometimes made believe I had a big brother, to defend me." Bruce's smile, following that statement, wasn't exactly warm and sunny.

"Ah, such as your green friend!" Thor's fingers, inflexible as they appeared, began to plait Loki's hair swiftly into a series of neat braids, because apparently that was a thing mighty Asgardian warriors did.

Thor kind of had a point when it came to that one, because when you got down to it, what was the Hulk, anyway, but the ultimate "my big brother can beat up your big brother?"

"I ought to have defended Loki, always." The god of thunder stared down at his work, fingers flying. "But on leaving First Childhood, I was still selfish, considering him an embarrassment before my friends. In Second Childhood, my father forbade me to help, because Loki would ever refuse to defend himself with might--though he fought as well as most among us, strong as he was, for such a slight boy, and quick as a serpent--but only with cunning and magic. And then..." With a few deft twists, Thor converted all the thin braids he'd made into one thick, intricate one, finally tying up the ends with a length of green cord. "And then, when we became youths, and after, Loki would no longer allow me to defend him at all, though I still needed him badly. I was brash, and loud..."

Not you, Thor! Tony thought.

"Bloodthirsty, quick to brawl, immoderate in my words and ways, while my brother was quiet, measured in his manner, nearly learned as the eldest of the Bards and Sages. Time and again he advised me, freeing me both from innocent scrapes and what might have been the graver consequences of my actions. You think that he betrayed me? Oh, my friends, many, many times did I forget, or belittle, or betray him, and I think, at times, the worst betrayal of all came when we three, with our comrades, met to be Avengers. I should have known. I should have known all was amiss, even without awareness of the exact cause of my brother's alteration. I had eyes to see that Loki's spirit and his trust were broken, and that he had become heartsick even unto death. He fell, and fell far, and in my pride, though I knew how he had fallen, and why, I never thought to ask into what dark places that fall led him. I suspect our father knew. I suspect, too, his awareness that Loki usurped his throne not out of his own pride, or the desire to rule, but out of terror, and the need to hide his own face behind the mask of one more feared than himself. Even in Asgard we are not so backward, in the ordinary course of things, as to shut the mind-sick into cells and deny them aid, or to refuse help to the desperate.

"Unless..." Thor's voice dropped even lower. "Unless the one mind-sick or desperate is the son of a king. A king's sons must be without flaws, or must be... elsewhere."

"If it comes to that, Thor, it's my fault, too," Bruce confessed. "I mean, I'm a doctor, and I'm supposed to be a pretty smart guy. I've also sworn an oath to do no harm and help people in distress, but all I did was make jokes about your brother being 'bag of cats crazy.' That's some quality doctoring, there. I'm still ashamed of myself."

"Looking back, we were kinda a bunch of assholes," Tony said. "Assholes to Loki, when if we'd spent five seconds engaging our brains and common sense we might have possibly helped him, shut him down in some semi-rational way, broken through his programming and maybe by doing that even avoided a shit-ton of our current problems--if nothing else, had the heads-up on Thanos years before and actually had time to strategize instead of just reacting, running around like chickens with our heads cut off when a giant evil donut appeared in the sky. Also--I will note--many of us were not only assholes individually, we were assholes collectively, with each other. It never should have come to what it came to, all the wrong steps with Ultron, and Bucky Barnes, the Accords and Steve becoming Public Enemy #1. All the super-fun stuff you guys missed out on."

"Hey, while you were doing that, I got to be The Other Guy for, like, years," Bruce put in, "And fight in gladiatorial battles for a psychopath on a junk planet. I'd say that was fun, but I basically don't remember."

Thor raised a hand, like a kid in school. "I also partook, and fun, it was not. An elder sheared away my hair, and into my neck was placed a disc of nanobyte technology, that might be used to control me. When I discovered Loki there, an apparent favorite of the vile Grandmaster, I disparaged him, and thought him a coward, over-fond of ease and luxury. Only... though my Loki ever enjoyed fine things, when was he a glutton, a drunkard, or given up to bodily pleasures? Ever, in former days, engrossed in his studies, he forgot to eat or drink--and now, scarcely will deign to do either. Also, would one who, ever, refused his own wants so as not to dishonor sweet Sigyn, his wife, though she was not of his choosing, fall so easily into a life only of pleasure?"

Tony, knowing the answers to several of these not-quite-so-rhetorical-as-Thor-might-imagine questions, decided it might be best not to say anything. First, those secrets weren't his to share. Second, with Thor's grip on emotional stability already not exactly secure, he suspected that the details of his brother's Sakaar experiences were the opposite of anything the god of thunder needed to hear, and Tony would be damned if he sent a second Brodinson tumbling into the darkness.

"Sakaar was..." Bruce murmured, then fell silent, occupying his hands with a thorough cleaning, burn-creaming and re-bandaging of Loki's wounds. The end results looked far more neat and professional than Tony's attempt, which ended up something like the start of a bad Mummy costume for Halloween.

"Looks good," Tony told him. "I bow to your clearly superior gauze-and-tape skills."

"Beyond the basic wound-care, there's not too much else I feel comfortable doing," Bruce went on. "Especially since Loki appears to be resting comfortably. The 'time and rest' prescription isn't glamorous, but it does tend to work."

He sat a while, shoulders slumped, regarding the clean white bandages nearly covering Loki's chest.

"It didn't hold up," Tony confessed, guessing at his ScienceBro's unvoiced thoughts. "My amazing Magic Preserver turned out to be a total bust, burned out right off the bat, and ended up draining Loki instead of helping, because that's what happens when I drag you into the Starkzone, where everything operates at beyond at the speed of sound. I should not have fucking done that, you were right and I was wrong, and what can I say? I'm sorry as hell, Bruce."

His friend just blinked. His eyes, behind their slightly-smudgy lenses, looked monumentally confused.

"Such things--cunning spells, intriguing devices, electronical in nature or not--have ever filled my brother with great curiosity," Thor cut in. "Friends, don't burden yourselves with dark thoughts. Nothing in the Nine could have prevented Loki from trying your clever invention."

"Except your brother did kinda trust us that the damn thing was ready for use, Point Break. Hey, maybe you could get your giant dwarf friend on the Planet Nutella to make Bruce a big mallet to hit me over the head with whenever I get especially stupid?"

And now, Mr. Anthony Stark, with his own Famous Guilt Spiral!

"Would I have to be worthy?" Bruce asked. "'Cause I don't know how worthy I feel, at the moment. Or, for that matter, ever."

Thor reached out to squeeze their shoulders, meaning it kindly, in his own potentially-collarbone-cracking way.

"You have long been my friends," he said, "And now, with so many departed, have become like family. Gods and men both may make mistakes, or be guilty of misapprehensions. I see no unworthiness here. I can't now, in my heart, regret even Sakaar, for that place, though foul, played its part to bring us closer."

"Can I...?" Bruce glanced up at the god of thunder with a slightly-shaky smile, then down again at his patient. "I mean, I wish... Uh, I guess..."

"Bruce?" Tony asked quietly.

"I guess, maybe, that you'd rather not hear that I don't know what I'm doing, but I don't, really. Since... Guys, my brain still feels wrong, like all that time submerged, then Ragnarok, flashing through space to try to warn about Thanos, not figuring things out with The Other Guy, everything going so wrong in Wakanda... I want to feel brilliant, insightful, helpful, useful to all of you, and I'm trying, I am, but mostly I just feel lost."

Tony rested his own hand on Bruce's other shoulder. His mouth opened, then just seemed to stick that way, his supposedly genius brain unable to supply even a single word of comfort--mostly because, it hit him, he scarcely felt any different. Everything seemed so hard, so confusing, so unthinkable, that most of the time he just wanted to wake up and find out that everything (everything, that was, except this sudden and totally unexpected sweetness with Loki) had all been a dream.

"It feels like Sakaar, all my time there, still clings to me, somehow," Bruce went on. "Like it was more than just a crappy place. Not so much for The Other Guy, maybe, since he could smash to his heart's content, even if he was only a slave, a prisoner of the Grandmaster's whims, and things wouldn't have ended well, even for him."

"Yet you and I escaped, my friend," Thor told him earnestly, "And need never travel there again."

"Yeah," Bruce breathed. "I know. I know. It's just... everything."

"When I was a kid, I'd look up at the stars," Tony said. "I'd imagine traveling on spaceships, and walking on other planets, and it was just... It was science. It was all the wonder of the Universe, and where other kids had fairy tales, that was my magic. Only now I've been there, I find out it's full of the same kinds of idiots, assholes and sociopaths we have here on Earth only, uh-oh, a million times more powerful, capable of sending half of us to just nowhere, to dust, with a handful of rocks and a fucking wish."

“'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,'" Loki quoted, from somewhere down among the pillows. "'They kill us for their sport.'”

"Kinda sums it up, doesn't it?" Tony hazarded a guess. "Shakespeare, right?"

Loki's expression, as he pushed himself groggily up from the mattress, clearly conveyed, You have to ask?

"Come along," he said next, his clothes refreshing themselves, literally by magic, the moment he stepped out of bed. "I want to examine our ship."

"Ship?" Bruce mouthed, as he and Tony traded glances.

Thor, meanwhile, merely slumped on the edge of the bed, looking as if he wanted to weep.

"You'll scarcely know I'm gone," Loki told his brother.

I'll know. I'll totally know, Thor's expression said in return. He looked like a kicked puppy. A huge kicked puppy.

Loki paused, his entire body screaming out that he wanted and needed to say more--but instead he just turned and strode out through the door.

"Back soon, buddy!" Tony told the Asgardian, with what, even to his own ears, sounded like totally fake cheer.

Bruce, the Lines of No Good Can Come of This showing at record depths, just gave a weak little wave. 

 


 "So, what d'ya think?" Rocket called down to Tony when he and Loki had made it halfway up the hill.

That is, Tony made it halfway up the hill. Loki, god with a mission, had of course nearly reached the top, even though he'd given every indication of trying to to slow himself down along the way. It wasn't that he deliberately left Tony, panting and struggling, behind in his proverbial dust, only--between his sense of purpose (glorious or not) and immensely long legs--he kept pulling ahead, despite the numerous stops and slow-downs Loki took along the way, attempting all the while to have those halts and pauses escape Tony's notice.

Tony found it sweet, actually. A little embarrassing, maybe, but sweet.

In retrospect, he probably should have just deployed his suit and flown.

Tony forearmed the sweat from his face, blinked the accumulated moisture from his lashes, and tried his best to determine where exactly Rocket might be calling from. Given the natural camouflage of his fur, the rapidly-darkening skies and the steady, demoralizing drizzle of rain (Loki had glanced upward the minute they stepped outside, narrowed his eyes, shook his head, and muttered toward the rain-clouds something that sounded distinctly like, "Oh, why, Brother? Why?") a raccoon, super-sized or not, wasn't easy to pick out from the landscape, even one so immensely pleased with himself that he appeared to be all but dancing on his back paws.

"Who's the genius, Stark?" he crowed. "I'm the fucking genius! Admire my work!"

"Our work," Nebula grated out. The rain didn't seem to bother her at all, but the gray-on-gray, combined with her blue-gray skin, made her even harder to spot than Rocket.

"Uh, yeah. Fantastic," Tony answered, trying to keep the worst of the doubt--at least--from his voice.

Up on the crest of the hill and slightly behind Scraps and Rocket, stood what could have been taken, if you kind of squinted and used your imagination, for a spaceship. If forced to be honest, Tony would have described it as looking something like a nose.

Like the large and somewhat crookedy nose of a Halloween witch, actually. Warts and all.

The corners of Loki's mouth quirked; he'd obviously picked up on the comparison. He seemed to be in a state with which Tony himself wasn't entirely unfamiliar: simultaneously drained and with tons of nervous energy to burn, which probably explained his super-speedy trip up from HQ. 

"It's actually the main escape craft of the Statesman," he explained. "The ship Thor and the Valkyrie, with Bruce's aid, took from Sakaar, having cleverly relieved the Grandmaster of the burden of its ownership."

Rocket snickered. "Yeah, that's one way to put it."

Loki only smiled, one of those half-sassy, half-sad smiles with which Tony was becoming familiar.  "Thor and I, on our recent visit to New Asgard, were given use of the craft by our people, with their blessing."

"Good of them," Tony commented. Closer up, the ship didn't exactly look non-spaceworthy, but it did look... well-used? Like it had a few miles on it? And it still looked a hell of a lot like a nose.

"Does this technological wonder have a name?" he asked.

"Nef Trollsins, so named by the children of Asgard," Loki answered, glancing upward again as a long grumble of thunder rolled by overhead. "Poor Thor worries, however I reassure him, and isn't overjoyed to see us go."

"Can't say as I blame him. When are we going, by the way?"

Loki, starting a slow walk around the ship, those threads of brilliant green he called his seiðr  branching everywhere around him, didn't quite see fit to answer. "It seems you have something in common with those children, Tony--only they perceive the nose of a troll while you see that of a crone. You've done remarkable work, my friends, and I've no doubt that the Troll's Nose, barring untoward interference, will see us safely to Xandar and back again. All is prepared for tonight's journey, and though perhaps our craft is not the 'fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy,' yet it will serve."

Tony stared at him, jaw dropped. "First off, did you just quote Star Wars to me, Loki Odinson?"

"I believe I may have." Loki's smile, that time, was entirely his own, full of humor and mischief.

"Second, 'tonight's journey?' And, last of all, when did you plan all this? In your sleep?"

"Oh, I'm always planning," Loki laughed. "Plotting, some might say. In my youth, 'scheming' was, I believe, the popular description for the usual workings of my mind. Now, I leave it to you whether you come with us, or no." His voice dropped lower. "You need not, truly, hjarta minn, if the thought causes distress."

Tony couldn't lie--Loki was damn right in thinking the idea of going back, so soon, into the unending dark of space gave him the heebie-jeebies in a major, major way. Still, he reached for his god's hand, giving it a quick squeeze. "Well, since it's you asking, and you're kinda my good luck charm..."

Loki's arms wrapped around him then, holding him close, all that green fire weaving a circle of protection around them, making Tony wonder what he had to be scared of in the first place.

I fear delay, the god's voice murmured in his head. I am of Chaos, not of entropy, and fear the time approaches when the worlds won't easily be set right again.

"Great minds think alike," Tony answered, and filled Loki in on his discussion with Friday, about Pepper and Happy, and using SI resources to try to delay the inevitable.

"Wise," Loki agreed. "In the words of your Midgardian poet, Yeats, 'Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.' I'm haunted, increasingly, by the certainty  that we must proceed with all haste, lest calamity follow."

While Tony was pondering whether "lest calamity follow" was the most Loki thing the god of Shakespearean turns of phrase had ever said, or if "I am of Chaos, not of entropy" should take that honor, Rocket's head, popped out unexpectedly through a half-open hatchway above them. "Hey, you two lovebirds comin' up or not?"

"'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly,'" Loki said, but at that point his eyes had started to sparkle, and Tony knew he was just making mischief of one kind and another.

 


Compared to most of his fellow citizens of Earth, Tony felt fairly sure he'd logged in more air miles, crossed more time zones (and thus lived more days that went forward in time, then back, then forward again, creating one long, endless day in which it always seemed to be just past two A.M. Such was the joy of his level of business travel, and when you came down to it, even with his own plane, twenty hours in the air still equaled twenty hours in a pressurized metal can.

Pepper could attest to how he whined about each and every trip. This mission (if he made it back home, and to their own time--something Loki swore, with what looked like complete sincerity, would be easy as pie, nothing at all like the previous jaunt to get the Time Stone), he promised her, in absentia, that he would never complain again.

"Easy as pie," though, seemed to be a relative thing.

He'd thought traveling aboard the evil space donut had been an... adventure, and his days on board Nebula's "how far are we gonna make it before this damn thing breaks down again?" craft, literally patching stuff together with the otherworldly equivalent of duct tape (which was slimy, and somehow also metallic, but mostly just weird, though it did seem to get the job done) an adventure of a whole other sort.

This trip was something else entirely, combining as it did all the worst features of a long, long flight through multiple time zones with the joy of traveling via questionably-maintained puddle-jumper through a remote area where in a crash-landing situation the emergency protocol was basically the punchline of that old, old joke: "grab onto your seat cushion and kiss your ass goodbye."

Tony had been in enough of those situations that they no longer scared him, particularly--however, sketchy as they might have been, none of those flights had taken place aboard a miniscule spacecraft piloted by an enhanced raccoon with no sense of caution, who also thought terrifying the ever-loving shit out of his passengers was the funniest damn thing in the world.

They also hadn't involved intergalactic jumps through stable (ha!) wormholes, and a time-shift instigated by a being known to, basically, everyone as the "god of mischief." Tony could only imagine that all other flights, past and future, would now, by comparison, seem like a gentle drift down a lazy river.

Which was to say, as ships went, the Troll's Nose appeared to be, um... surprisingly maneuverable. A fact of which Tony became only too aware because Rocket flew about as expected, given his name and species, which was to say, like a fucking maniac.

He'd also issued a snide warning to anyone who dared to upchuck in his cockpit. What the consequences of doing so might have been, Tony only failed to find out due to, literally, divine intervention. Between Rocket's piloting technique and whatever the repurposed escape vessel used for artificial gravity, Tony's inner ears had quit without given two weeks' notice, taking whatever remained of his balance with them. By the time they'd set down on the planet Xandar, in the midst of a field of mud, sludgy water, mechanical wreckage and smoke, that might once have been a fairly attractive harbor-slash-spaceport, he'd literally had to cling to Loki's arm just to stay upright.

Humiliatingly, all three of his companions seemed perfectly fine, but at least the clinginess didn't cause him to stand out in the crowd--because there was, if not an actual crowd, a number of other people around them. People, in this case meaning the natives of what appeared to be several different worlds.

Based on the crying, screaming, general rushing-around and others beside Tony himself being held upright by their friends and loved ones, whatever had caused the aforementioned mud, sludgy water, mechanical wreckage and smoke appeared to have happened only moments earlier.

Several of these terrified people were bald, with an almost schoolbus-yellow skin-tone, and when Tony glanced back toward his companions he realized that Loki must have switched on his illusion-power to make the four of them blend in with the rest, since they now appeared to be a schoolbus-yellow family unit with a young son (Rocket), a mom (Scraps), a tall dad (Loki) and whatever Tony himself happened to be. Probably, based on the arm-clinging, the feeble old grandad of the group. At least Tony had the presence of mind not to start groping at his own face to find out.

Also, there was Peter Quill, front and center, facing off against a tall blue guy with crusty black facepaint. Tall blue guy was armed with what looked like a large chunk of anvil on a long stick, and embedded in the side of that anvil appeared to be a flashy purple gem.

"Ah, yes," Loki murmured. "Our target."

Tony gripped his arm a little tighter. He felt weird now, almost drunk, or maybe as if he might just float off into the atmosphere, like a runaway hot air balloon, unless he had the god as his anchor.

"The other guy's Ronan," Rocket muttered out of the side of his mouth. "The Accuser."

"Accuser?" Tony wondered aloud. "Who is he accusing? Quill? Why is he accusing him? Even bigger why--why is he carrying a chunk of anvil on a stick? In case he feels the need for a little impromptu smithying?"

"Uh..." The disguised raccoon nudged Loki in the hip.

"My apologies." Loki's long, cool (though currently schoolbus-yellow) fingers curled around the back of Tony's neck. A few breaths later, his feet felt thirty pounds heavier. His head throbbed a little, and he might have felt mildly nauseated, but no longer floating-away drunk.

"The air of Xandar," Loki murmured, "Though breathable, is not, for certain races conducive to rational thought."

Rocket snickered. "I've seen some things."

"I do not comprehend 'anvil-on-a-stick,' Nebula said, wearing her frowny-face. "His weapon is only the combi-rod, carried by all Accusers."

The combi-rod, Tony thought. It sounded like something from one of those trashy, drug-fueled, semi-porn sci-fi "classics" of the late sixties. Something from the Barbarella school of film making.

"And Accusers," Rocket continued, "Ain't nothing but a bunch of nosy Kree--what d'ya call them on Terra? Cops. Just a bunch of stuck-up Kree cops."

"Although I hesitate to paint an entire race with one brush," Loki put in, "If a more humorless, officious and self-regarding people than the Kree exist anywhere in the Universe, I have yet to meet them."

 "Yup, you said it, your godliness," Rocket agreed.

At that moment, though, their attention shifted, as Big Blue and Quill began to face off in earnest.

If by "face off" you meant Peter Quill (adorned in a tight leather jacket and screamingly-tight jeans, the better to show off... something) started up a little hip-twitching movement that he probably called dancing, and to sing an off-key rendition of an oldie by those one-hit wonders, The Five Stairsteps.

Ronan just stared. At one point he asked, in tones of utter disbelief, "What are you doing?"

Quill responded by calling his foe a "turdblossom." That was a new one.

Tony had already known Peter Quill was a fucking idiot, on so many levels. He hadn't really needed to have that confirmed. "Ooh Child" had, once upon a time, been a fun song from the year of his birth. From here on, it would exist only as a reminder of a guy who Rocket said was half human, half god--in the sense that his dad was a planet. A living planet. Ego the Living Planet, for Chrissakes.

Half man. Half god. All douche.

Not to mention that, seriously, would they even be in this mess, if--when everyone else was doing their thing on Titan, and their plan was actually fucking working--Quill hadn't decided, at just that moment, to lose his shit?

They'd come so close to stopping Thanos, so close to stopping all this.

Of course, the same thing could be said for Thor's little aiming miscalculation, his failure to go for the head. It probably wasn't fair, really, to blame either of them, two guys driven to extremes by grief, and there but for the turning of the universe go any of us...

But still, to have come so close and failed... that had hurt.

Now, though, Tony almost couldn't hold any of that against the man. He simply hadn't realized that douchery, at Quill's level, amounted to a super-power.

Because while Quill danced and the Accuser stared at him unbelievingly, the rest of Quill's team--namely the Rocket of that time and the big, bald guy with the red markings--had literally pulled out the big guns, blowing the anvil-on-on-a-stick to kingdom come and sending the purple gem flying.

Ronan reached, and Quill reached, and in the midst of all that reaching came a single whip-crack of green, followed up by an eye-searing blast of the same color...

Then all four of them, looking exactly like themselves, were back on board the Troll's Nose, strapped in and getting the hell out of Dodge, the Power Stone grasped tight in Loki's fist.

 "That wasn't the original plan," Tony commented, when he'd finally managed to catch his breath, winded not by any physical exertion, but by the sheer whirlwind of events.

Loki opened up his nano-gloved hand to show the purple gem gloating lightly, just above his palm.

"Ah. Yes. That."

"Care to explain?" Tony reached out to touch, but Loki's instant look of alarm made him quickly pull his hand away again.

"This one's dangerous," the god warned, before shutting the Stone into yet another of his puzzle boxes.

"Meaning what? It will seek to corrupt me by whispering of dark desires, like the One Ring?" He paused. "In Lord of the Rings. Tolkien?"

Loki actually managed not to roll his eyes. "'Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,"' he intoned, sounding way more sinister than he did geeky, which wasn't normally the case in these situations. "'Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.' "

"Okay. Got it. No explanation necessary."

"How Professor Tolkien learned an incantation of the Svartálfar, I'll perhaps never discover," Loki commented. "I only know I didn't teach him. And, no, hjarta minn, the Power Stone would not corrupt you. Unless, by 'corrupt,' you meant, 'blast me into my component atoms.' You are mortal,  and as I happen to like your atoms as currently arranged, please, for my sake, if not your own, forebear to touch the bedamned thing."

"Fair enough," Tony answered, thinking that he also liked his atoms as currently arranged, and noticing, also, that even Loki had avoided skin-to-Stone contact.

"Rocket graciously allowed me to examine his memories," Loki explained, some time later.

"Stuff I barely remembered, he picked out of my head fresh and crisp as a new daisy." The raccoon leaned back in his pilot's chair, seeming perfectly relaxed, the Troll's Nose temporarily on some sort of autopilot as it ticked through a list of pre-jump procedures.

"And?"

"We decided that to pilfer the Power Stone during such a formal occasion as the presentation ceremony," Loki answered, "Might not be best suited to our collective skills, as requiring too much precision, with too many witnesses and too much possibility of events not going as planned, which in such a setting can easily spell disaster.

When Tony thought about it (though he still wasn't thrilled to be left out of the loop), that made fair enough sense. Bringing Loki, a raccoon (enhanced or not), the Blue Meanie (and her swords), and, well... him  into a formal political affair? Jot it down on an index card and call it a recipe for disaster.

"Got it," he said. "God of Chaos, not The Italian Job."

They'd just all looked at him.

Tony sighed, then reached out for Loki's hand, leaning closer, his head on Loki's shoulder, as his god leaned against him in return. Up in the front row, Rocket and Nebula bickered with each other, in a quiet--even friendly--way.

"So, two stones," Tony ventured. "So far, so good, huh?"

"The first attempt might have been better. This one was, as is sometimes said, a 'breeze.'"

"Yeah, pretty much. A little unexpected, maybe..." He allowed the words to trail off, then raised his head, letting his eyes catch Loki's. "It's not a criticism, babe, but y'know--it's okay to share?"

For just a second, an expression flashed over Loki's face that seemed young, lost, and a little afraid. An instant later, all that vanished, as if it had just been something Tony imagined.

Still, the god held Tony's hand a little tighter. "I've become unaccustomed, through time, to sharing my thoughts," he said at last. "To knowing someone, reliably, 'has my back,' as is said on Midgard. In the future, I must try to remember."

"Yeah?" Tony answered. "That's maybe not such a bad idea."

Bruce was right, sometimes the two of them really were like twins separated at birth.

Loki gave his small, flickering smile. 

The stars flashed by.

During one of the long, slow stretches (okay, faster than the speed of light, but space is a big place, so they seemed interminable) between wormholes, Tony drifted off to sleep, waking sometime later to the sound of Rocket sobbing, choking out his dusted shipmates' names.

"Quill. Drax. Mantis. Gamora. Groot... ah, damn... Groot."

What would it have been like, he wondered, to go back the way Rocket just had? To see Peter again (Peter Parker, that was, not Quill--Tony though he could probably last a good long time without seeing Peter Quill).. To be with all the lost ones, and know that he didn't belong there, that he couldn't stay with them?

"I'll take us through," Scraps said quietly.

"If you would, please, kæru einn," Loki answered, before his voice dropped low again, and he went on, in words Tony couldn't quite make out--maybe because they weren't meant for him to hear--with the comforting of their friend.

Chapter Text

Scraps, to give credit where credit was due, had proven herself to be a superlative pilot. In fact, she set the Troll's Nose down so gently, on the exact same spot, on the exact same hill (just north of the compound, and beside that stretch of tarmac that had once been busy, with trucks, and cars, and the Quinjet coming and going, but now just... wasn't, and how the hell had he missed noticing?) that Tony hadn't even woken up until after Loki gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.

He came back to the real world groggy and blinking, his sight still hazy with sleep.

"You dreamed deeply." Loki's emerald eyes gazed down at him with a mixture of fondness and amusement. Producing a prince-quality handkerchief out of--as usual--absolutely nowhere, he dabbed at a damp spot on Tony's chin. "Are you well, hjarta minn?"

Tony glanced around the cockpit. As not entirely unexpected, Nebula and Rocket were nowhere to be seen.

"I'm peachy. Drooling in my sleep, which is always attractive, but peachy. No bad dreams, so that's a plus." Freed from his safety harness, Tony indulged in a spine-cracking stretch, then yawned until his jaw creaked. "I'm betting that had something to do with you?"

He'd actually be willing to bet that quite a few things, in recent memory, had "something to do" with Loki. The total, without-even-a-scar healing of the formerly-troublesome wound in his side for one, the fact that he wasn't still completely debilitated by his last adventure in space, for another. And now, two--count them two--Infinity Stones fully in their possession. Not to get cocky, or count chickens, or eggs, or however that saying went, but being a third of the way to their goal already didn't exactly suck.

I wonder how many we need to have in our hot little hands, he thought, not without a smidgen of bitterness, Before Rhodey sees fit to respond to my texts.

He resolved to text his best friend regardless, just to make it clear that, whatever happened, he remained his same ol' lovable, obnoxious self.

Loki shrugged, and gave one of his little flickering smiles. "Don't dwell, please, on this temporary estrangement. Your Colonel Rhodes will come around, I expect--as friends, I'm given to understand, have a way of doing."

"I'm given to understand," mind you, not, "I know from experience." Worse, Loki didn't even sound angry, as if he took being disliked by all and sundry as something of a foregone conclusion.

He thought of Loki comforting Rocket, or soothing his brother, Loki hauling Nat and Cap with him all the back to the present during their first, entirely-god-of-mischief-powered time excursion. He thought of the ironic tone Loki's voice took on when he spoke of himself, and also of the words he used, "monster" and "argr."

He thought of Loki's intelligence, his resourcefulness, his courage, which was entirely different from his brother's "charge in, hit it hard, and see if it sticks" bravery. 

He thought of Loki coming to New York in 2012, and what he'd had to say about his "invasion."

"Lok..." Tony began. "What you said before, about your plan, back in the day, being designed to save Midgardian life...?"

Another little flicker of smile. "Is now the time to ask, beloved?"

Tony took his hand. "I think it kinda is. I know about the scepter, and the mind control, and... the rest."

"Ah, yes, 'the rest.'" Loki's eyes burned at him, pure green fire.

"But, it's like this, Lok--knowing you a little while now, I'm not sure Thanos did break you. That doesn't seem to line up with what I've observed."

"Does it not?"

"I also know that pretty much everything I, or any other Avenger assumed about you, Nat and your brother included, was close to 100% incorrect."

"You think so?" There was a totally Loki non-answer if Tony had ever heard one.

"So, satisfy my curiosity, please. If Thanos broke you, it wasn't through the usual means. I imagine he tried pain, sleep deprivation, hunger, etc. etc., and you just laughed in his face. So, what was it?"

Loki did a million-mile stare through the viewport, taking his time before answering. "He believed he broke me--and, indeed, I was terrified. He believed I became his ally, that my intelligence was his to command, as he commands all of his 'Black Order,' with their fell powers and silly names. Believing this, he believed in my plan, which was also supremely silly. How is one meant to rule over Midgard, as if it were a place of relatively small size and great homogeneity, like Asgard, or Jötunheimr? Midgard, compared to those, is vast, has no central government and many defenders. What consequence if New York fell? It is one great city among many great cities, and even the government of this nation of yours was content to explode it well nigh to oblivion to contain the menace of the Chitauri. To bring a nightmare army through a small portal and expect, at the end, to rule anything would be ludicrous. Far more might be achieved with a computer virus, or a simple E.M.P. pulse, both of which would be far more suited to my abilities--a wave of my hand, a thought, and 'tis done."

"You have a point," Tony said. "Done right, those would make one hell of a mess."

"Flying through the air on a... on a sky scooter, catching arrows and exhorting the troops? From what you know of me, is this in any way my style?"

"From what I know of you? Not so much."

"It is, however, entirely Thanos's way. He is immensely powerful and possessed of large reserves of low cunning, but otherwise deeply stupid, a bludgeoner, not a thinker. Did Nebula tell of his modus operandi, prior to his quest for the Stones? What became of her world, and the world of her sister, Gamora? Year after year after year he has moved, with his armies, from planet to planet, world to world, and slain half the population of each. That is how he broke me, and that is why I came to New York with my brilliant plan. Villainously, I balanced the lives of, perhaps, 200--was that, or something near to that, not the final toll of Midgardian deaths when all was said and done?--against the lives of three and a half billion. Your own government was willing to slay many millions--it is eight or nine million souls, is it not, that inhabit your New York?--to contain my menace. I regret those lives lost, Tony, I do, and yet, given the circumstances, cannot regret my solution. I was not... not at my best, not at my cleverest, and in the moment could think of nothing better."

"Wow," Tony said. Like Loki, he couldn't, in the moment, think of anything better either, only of the horror, had such a thing happened. The dust had been horrible enough, as was the loss of so many people from their lives, but the thought of so many bodies, so many actual corpses to be dealt with, and all that entailed, struck him as unimaginable. All he could see, the closest image his mind would allow, was the catacombs under Paris, bones upon bones upon bones.

Tony shuddered, feeling more than a little sick.

"As you say." Loki ran his fingers back through his no-longer-fancily-braided hair, his face tightening in a way that in anyone else would have produced a grimace, but when Loki did it showed nothing at all, a mask of unreadability set with emerald eyes that, in contrast, showed what seemed like all the pain in the world, so much there Tony could no longer bear to look.

What the hell else did he expect those eyes to show? After all, what had Loki witnessed, recently, but the death of his homeland, and of most of the people he'd ever known, then, when they thought they made good on their escape, along came Thanos again, and half of that pitiful remnant lying lifeless on the deck of the Statesman?

Plus his own death, Tony reminded himself, Don't forget that cheery little event.

For a second, Loki didn't just look pale and tired, he looked downright ghostly.

Tony shuddered, and gripped Loki's hand again, harder, so hard the bite of his fingers almost certainly would have felt painful to another human being, though the god didn't so much as blink.

Instead, Loki sighed, pressing his other cool, smooth hand over Tony's hand. "I think... May we change the subject, please, and speak of this later?"

"Okay, babe," Tony answered. He wasn't catching anything of Loki's thoughts, not so much as a peep, only a silence where he'd become used to feeling a steady hum of Lokiness. "So, um, change of subject--how's Rocket?"

"Much as you or I would be, I suspect, if in the midst of our grief, everyone we'd loved stood alive before us once again, and yet we were forced to leave them." Loki's hands moved away from his to sit still and quiet, now, in his lap, his fingers, still showing the imprints of Tony's fingers, woven together neatly.

"Point taken." Tony touched Loki's cheek, brushing back a few stray wisps of hair. "You were good with him."

"I am not entirely a being of harshness and self-concern." Yet another flickering smile passed over his lips. "Almost entirely, but not entirely."

Nope, just like me, Tony thought, You're a being of pain and self-defense mechanisms. Bruce really wasn't wrong when he called us twins separated at birth.

Aloud, he said, "You're good with your brother, too."

Loki just laughed and shook his head. "Highly debatable."

"May I say something stupid now, please?"

Those emerald eyes flashed at him, suddenly wary. One long forefinger pressed against Tony's lips.

"Let me first..." he began. Then, "Thor is outside. There's a brief errand we must complete, and then, hjarta minn, we two may speak without interruption. Agreed?"

"I guess," Tony answered, inwardly a little grudgingly, not in any way wanting the god of unexplained errands to leave.

Loki climbed to his feet, bending a little so as not to knock his head on the low ceiling. "A matter of moments will see my return. Be cautious as you exit, beloved. The ladder will be slippery with rain."

"Will do," Tony answered, forcing a smile. "Only, be warned: if you're gonna mom me, Lok, I'm gonna mom you too, and my momming will consist of making sure you you eat an actual meal the minute you get home, then get a decent night's sleep."

"Your concern is... noted." Despite the less-than-emotional words, Loki's smile had a softness that might even have bordered on tenderness. He took Tony's face between his hands to deliver a long, sweet, slow kiss that didn't just border on tenderness, it lived there completely.

Tony wrapped his arms around Loki's waist, pulling him closer than close, breathing in the god's own scent along with the last whiff of Xandar's embarrassingly intoxicating air, his entire body resonating to the slow, firm beat of Loki's heart.

A stray thought drifted by: ...would stay... I would stay...

Instead, after a final soft press of Loki's lips against Tony's, the god of abrupt departures teleported.

To feel bereft about an errand, something Loki said would take minutes, seemed ridiculous, but when did ridiculousness ever change anything?

"I love you, Lok," Tony whispered into the empty cockpit, hoping like hell he wouldn't lose his nerve before Loki returned, and he could say the words for real.

Tony didn't know why, but the feeling hung over him that they needed to be said, and soon, before...

Before nothing, Tony scolded himself. You're Tony Stark, remember? The guy who rejects superstition? The guy who knows omens and premonitions are nothing but total bullshit?

Say it, instead, not because some looming fate awaits, but because it's true--you do love Loki, and you're pretty sure he loves you. Say it because he deserves to hear the words.


 "Friday," Tony said. "Do me a favor? Bring up my fucking worthless designs for the Magic Preserver?"

Bruce shot him a look, but didn't say anything. Friday also kept whatever potential comments she might have shared to herself, though Tony felt certain she had more than a few.

Seconds later, as Tony frowned at the schematics for his less-than-praiseworthy invention, Loki strolled in.

He wasn't armored up, for once, but dressed again in those supremely well-fitted black jeans, this time paired with a tee. Not an ordinary t-shirt, of course, not for the god of sartorial splendor, but a medium-gold number that coordinated perfectly with the blue of Loki's skin, and any idiot could have guessed at a glance was something special.

Aside from looking stunning, he also appeared supremely pleased with himself.

"Well, if it isn't the Lokitty who caught the canary," Tony commented, and left off glaring at his own wonky plans to give the god of being sexy and he knew it a kiss. "That was quick. How's your bro?"

"Very well, actually." Loki eased up onto the top of the same worktable where he'd perched the last time. "Fairly cheerful, and helping Steve to make what Thor calls 'meatbread.' So fails the Allspeak upon an unwary, and less-than-precise-tongue."

"Um...?" Tony gave him a look, then followed the look with a trip across the lab, leaning into Loki for a hug and yet another kiss, intoxicated by the smell of his own body wash on the god's freshly-showered skin. "Mmn, clean and shiny."

"As I was formerly muddy and gritty, and smelled rather of swamp, be grateful for small favors." Loki's long arms wrapped around Tony's body, pulling him closer still. "I only meant to say that, like all spells--or devices, for that matter--of translation, the Allspeak requires accurate input to ensure an accurate end result. Thor's use of words, the Nornir bless him, has something in common with his fighting form."

"Flailing around with a big hammer?" Tony leaned against Loki's chest, which was undoubtedly bony, but still somehow welcoming.

"Indeed. What is your Midgardian saying? 'Garbage in, garbage out?' And still, the results are so entirely Thor. I find them charming."

"Got it!" Bruce laughed suddenly. "Meatloaf. Steve's making meatloaf."

Tony stuck out his tongue, Mr. Yuk-style. "Blech. And also, ugh."

"Yes, please turn up your rich-guy nose at our peasanty comfort foods." A look of happy nostalgia came over Bruce's face. "My Aunt Susan made the best meatloaf. She used oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs."

"Not much helping the meatloaf cause there, buddy."

"What? It was delicious!" A gentle smile spread over Bruce's face, and Tony noticed that Loki was smiling too.

"She was good, your Aunt Susan," the god commented. "Not perfect, perhaps, but good. A warmth comes over you, Bruce, when you speak of her."

"Um-hmn," Bruce answered, for once lost in the past in a way that seemed to involve an actual pleasant memory.

"So," Tony cut in, though not (he hoped) in a completely rude way. "Logs of ground-up meat aside, where were you, Lok? Why muddy and gritty? Were you battling invading trolls beneath the streets of New Asgard?"

"We did travel below the earth," Loki answered. "Though not in Norway. We began, actually, in the British Lands, at the time of the Convergence, within a structure that I believe is termed a 'parking garage.' From thence..." Loki shrugged. "Where we traveled, I know not, precisely. A place made singular by the late King Bor, Father of Odin. It was... silty, and smelt surpassingly unpleasant, and yet..."

He reached sideways, this time, to access his pocket universe, producing out of it yet another of his puzzle boxes. This one he unwound, like unwinding a spool of thread, until there, on his palm lay something that looked like a red gel-cap vitamin.

Loki, of course, grinned like a fiend when Bruce's and Tony's jaws dropped simultaneously.

"That's not..." Bruce began.

"Tell me, Sneaky Loki, that you didn't just pop off to the netherworld and show up five minutes later with another fucking Infinity Stone," Tony finally managed. His jaw, after having so thoroughly dropped, didn't seem to want to work properly.

"If you like," Loki answered, still grinning. "The actual process was slightly more complex, and involved a bit of skulking, as it were, directly under Lady Jane's and Lady Darcy's noses. Other than that... it seems Great-Grandfather Bor was not so adept at hiding things as he imagined, and that the vessel I'd prepared was admirably suited, as was the spell I'd learnt to constrain the Aether within. Perhaps, this once, the Nornir actually deign to smile upon us?"

Bruce's face scrunched up into an expression of mingled pain and disbelief. "Okay, now you've done it."

"Surely, as a man of science, Bruce, you don't indulge such superstition?" Loki teased. "'Sticks and stones,' and all that? How may a few words harm us?"

"Rationally, Loki?" Bruce answered. "I know they can't. Still, there's such a thing as not counting your chickens before they're hatched."

"That's the one I was trying to think of!" Tony exclaimed.

"Very well," Loki said, clearly humoring Bruce to the best of his ability. "I will not count these chickens you speak of. I will however count Stones--which are three in number, now, in our hands: Time, Power and Reality. I begin to believe, my friends, that we may actually, should all go well, achieve our ends."

"When you put it that way..." Tony shot the god a grin bright enough to echo Loki's own. "I think you may be right. That, and Thor's celebratory meatbread awaits. What could go wrong?"

"What indeed?" Loki responded, casting a stern look at Bruce's pessimistic headshake.

Of course, the only truthful (not to mention, realistic) answer to that question was, and always would be, "um... anything and everything?" If Tony had managed to learn--as Loki almost certainly would have said--"aught" since that fateful day that the team first assembled, it should have been that Avengers-Normal and Murphy's Law went together like peanut butter and jelly. Those lessons had been hard, and painfully learned. He wasn't about to forget them.

But still, throughout the evening, Tony couldn't help but be reminded of another meal, of eating shawarma with the team after the Battle of New York, a time that now seemed set apart from everything that came before and after, a peaceful interlude separate from all the feuding and bitterness.

They might be figuratively holding their breaths now, waiting for the penny to drop or the other shoe to fall, but that night, dammit, three--count them, three--puzzle boxes occupied places of honor down the middle of the long table, each with its own Infinity Stone sheltered safely inside, and if that wasn't something to celebrate, Tony didn't know what was.

He held Loki's hand under cover of the tabletop, made toasts, clinked beer-bottles, laughed and talked with his six not-quite-but-almost-teammates (who, by the way, finally just sprawled around the table wherever seemed comfortable, instead of bunching up in miserable little knots at opposite ends, like the remaining troops of two nearly-played-out-but-still-warring armies) and, yes, actually enjoyed the hell out of both the surprisingly tasty meal Thor and Steve had cooked for them, and each others' company.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow brings (with luck, and barring unforeseen disaster), not death--no more of that, please--but a successful mission and two more Stones.

Chapter Text

"It's too soon, and I don't think it's a good idea." Bruce looked--and sounded--so earnest it made Tony feel squirmy. "For all of their sakes, I think we should give it at least another day. Two days, really, to be back in top fighting condition, if you ask me."

With apologies to his ScienceBro, Tony both wasn't asking and, like the rest of the team, had zero intention of giving in to Bruce's misgivings and letting him get his way. Brucie-bear may have had concerns about the fitness status of Team Time Travel, but everyone else had even stronger feelings about the current state of the world. Tony, especially, suffered from a looming sense that stuff needed to get done, and needed to get done now.

...things fall apart...

...the center cannot hold...

At the same time, though, this did happen to be Bruce's area of expertise, and the thought of disrespecting his friend, of seeming to confirm all his ScienceBro's nagging self-doubts...

That didn't feel good. In fact, "squirmy" probably wasn't a strong enough word.

"Are either of you inclined to ask for my opinion?" Loki cut in, "Or do you merely intend to argue across me until the time comes to depart?"

"Well, of course..." Bruce began.

Tony hid a brief caress under the pretext of smoothing down the last piece of (newly redesigned) conductive tape that held the (also newly-redesigned) Magic Preserver in place. The nasty burns from version 1.0 had, thankfully, nearly healed, leaving the new skin beneath the tape a tender lavender color instead of raw purple. Loki continued to voice not a single doubt, either about the disastrous previous version, or the promised perfection of this one, as if Tony's invention had nothing whatsoever to do with him.

He'd at least had mildly approving things to say about both the large in-house launchpad, and the smaller portable version formerly installed on the Troll's Nose and now moved aboard the Quinjet, and he'd declared what Tony dubbed the Time GPS, "Ingenious!" but in general the god seemed to regard Tony's inventions, and all such "Electronical Implements" as charming, creative, quaint, but maybe not all that by his own exacting godly standards.

Tony actually had to wonder, now and then, if, to Loki, his genius inventions seemed roughly the equivalent of an eight-year-old having done a really spiffy job with his project for the Third Grade Science Fair.

"Not at all, beloved," Loki insisted, but he seemed a little distracted, and Tony wasn't really encouraged by the assurance.

"I really am sorry about the first one, you know," Tony told him.

Apology, of course, accepted, Loki replied in his head, though his thoughts still sounded about a million miles distant.

"Okay, give it a shot, then," Tony said. "Just a sizzle, maybe, to start with? Nothing major."

A cluster of sparks tingled around the god's fingers, and a red rose appeared. Loki presented it to Tony with a slightly-ironic grin. The stem had no thorns, and the flower's fragrance, when he sniffed, struck him as deep and complex, unlike anything he'd smelled on Earth.

It's called a Remembrance Rose, and is meant to remind one of the sweetness of past times. Perhaps not the most original token of romance, but simple to recreate. My mother grew them in her garden.

The thought, I wish you might have met her, drifted after, maybe, or maybe not, intended for Tony's hearing.

"I'd thought of arraying the rose with an inordinate number of thorns, to better represent myself," Loki said aloud, and the look he gave Tony to accompany that statement seemed even deeper and more complex than that indescribable fragrance. "But I suppose you already know what you're getting."

Another sparkle, and a slender vase, of what looked like crystal, though of a higher quality than even Howard Stark ever kept in any of his homes, appeared in midair. Water poured down into it out of, apparently, nowhere, and then the blossom drifted from Tony's hand, plunging stem-downward into the liquid.

"Very elegant," Tony commented. "But how did it feel?"

Loki spread his hand across the "U" of wire and tape attached to his otherwise-bare chest. "Interesting. Oddly... effervescent? Is that a correct word?"

"Effervescent?" Bruce asked. "You mean, as in bubbly?"

"Yes, strangely enough. It's nothing like what I felt with the first device. There's a... lightness, I suppose might be an accurate descriptor. It's not unpleasant. There's no sense of my seiðr spilling away, or of any drain to my physical energies."

"So, good, yes? Helpful?"

"Of course, hjarta minn." Loki pulled Tony a little closer, bending down to kiss his forehead. The god's voice, he had to admit, might still have sounded ever-so-slightly condescending, but Tony suspected that had less to do with his invention, and more to do with Loki's impatience that (in his opinion) he'd have practically nothing to do on the mission, since Steve would pilot the Quinjet for their transportation, despite Loki's protest that he'd be more than capable of teleporting them from Point A to Point B across--as he put it--"the skin of Midgard," and that not for nothing had one of his names ever been "The Skywalker."

A certain amount of time passed before the god of being unamused by mid-seventies pop culture references recovered from being referred to as "Luke" instead of "Loki," and forgave Tony's series of "Loki, I am your father" jokes--and, really, Tony should have guessed fathers wouldn't exactly be considered much of a joking matter where Loki was concerned.  Bruce's sensitive attempts to explain, though, instead of helping, just made the whole thing ten times funnier, until at last Loki had managed to determine independently that it wasn't actually him or his abilities being mocked.

He'd treated Tony to an eyebrow-raise and a muttered "puerile American cinema," and then all had been peaceful between them.

Since, as mentioned, the Quinjet would provide their transport, while the Time Stone powered the jump back to 2012, Loki anticipated needing to do little more than use his powers of persuasion upon his past self, and the whole affair struck him as routine, certainly nothing to be delayed, no matter how much Bruce might protest. 

"I feel quite sanguine about the entire endeavor," he said, running the tips of his black claws lightly over the curve of tape and wires. "Excepting, only, that I have grown comfortable in this skin, and to change, to put on, again, my Aesir form and appear as I was..." His voice trailed off, and his eyes looked distant, his expression vulnerable. "Still," he finally continued, "I don't cast aside the changes, or what I have become. 'Tis only subterfuge, to make him--my self of former days--comfortable. The past is the past."

"Sure enough," Tony agreed. "So hurry back, okay, and be my beautiful blue you?"

"You are, indeed, entirely ridiculous," Loki told him, as he pulled a perfectly-fitted long-sleeved tee over his head. Somehow, the u-shape of wire and tape barely showed, and the nanosuit, deployed by Loki with a thought, concealed even that.

"Yup, that's me," Tony answered, taking the god's hand as he slid down from the workbench, though Loki hardly needed the support.

"You gonna be okay with this?" Tony asked, his volume control turned all the way down, since he meant the question for Loki's ears only.

"Why would I not?" Loki returned, perfectly nonchalant--at least, that's what his voice said, and his face said. The Lokivibes Tony picked up on told quite another story.

"Oh... I dunno. Meeting your past self? Which, aren't there actually rules about that sort of thing?"

"Made by whom?" Loki scoffed, in his grammatically correct way. "The Bureau of Time Travel Regulation? My past self and I are composed of mere matter, one in no way antithetical to the other. We shan't cause one another to implode, or bring about the destruction of the universe."

"What about your seiðr?" Bruce asked, which struck Tony as a halfway reasonable question.

"Yeah, what about that?" he chimed in. "If he's trying to use it, and you're trying to use it, then...?"

"And you are now both Seiðmaðr?" Loki asked, laughing, "Well-schooled in such things?"

"Well, no, but..." Tony began, then gave it up as a lost cause. Whatever exactly Loki meant by "Seiðmaðr," chances were it fell firmly inside Loki's area of expertise, not his, or Bruce's, and if they continued with this line of questioning, the god's current state of good-humored indulgence was likely to turn into one of general pissed-offness, which wasn't the best place for even short-term goodbyes, much less Loki heading off on his mission centered and thinking clearly. 

With that in mind, Tony wove his own relatively-stubby fingers in with Loki's slender, graceful ones and with Bruce on Loki's other side, the three of them left the workshop, heading off from HQ and into the pale pinky-gold light of dawn hand-in-hand, Loki's other arm draped loosely and affectionately around Bruce's shoulders.

They found found the rest of Team Time Travel already waiting on the tarmac, Natasha in her sprayed-on black spy-wear, Steve in the spangle-suit, circa 2012, complete with the goofy hat and the big 3D star on the chest.

Rocket and Scraps were nowhere to be seen, and Thor, Tony happened to know, was sleeping off several hours of toasts and surprisingly bawdy Asgardian drinking songs with the blackout curtains shut tight over his windows and at least a couple pillows stacked on top of his head. Loki had spent quite a stretch of time with him in the wee hours, before reporting to the workshop.

Now, Loki gave Bruce a significant look.

"I'll look out for him. I will." Tony's ScienceBro gave the god a quick, tight hug. "Just... hurry back?"

"It's an hour there, maybe," Steve said, with a grin. "An hour back. You'll hardly know we're gone, guys."

"And our mission itself will take, literally, no time whatsoever." With a flourish, Loki produced the puzzle box containing the Time Stone, then, with a graceful pass of his hands, vanished it just as quickly."

"Um... good luck, then," Bruce told the team, as Steve patted his shoulder, then Nat gave his cheek a quick peck.

Tony performed a weak little wave, getting nods from the other two and a more-than-slightly wicked smirk from Loki as he blurred a little, then shimmered, then became his other self--a couple inches shorter, hornless, and pale as moonlight.

In every other respect, he remained 100% himself, and allowing their hands to separate felt like one of the hardest things Tony ever had to do.

Watching Loki climb nimbly up the Quinjet ladder and disappear from sight might not have been the second hardest, but it certainly hit well within the top ten.

"Only three more stones," Bruce said quietly.

"Yeah," Tony agreed. "Only one, after today."

"Tone..." Bruce began.

"Yeah?" Tony watched Steve's powerful ascent, Natasha following, light and quick, on his heels.

"Nothing." Bruce shook his head. "Nothing. Just trying to decide between a nap and another cup of coffee."

Tony laughed. "Let's go halfsies: you take the nap; I'll have the coffee. Gotta go with whatever's worst for me, after all."

"You do have a reputation to uphold." His ScienceBro stopped for a huge yawn, one so big his jaw gave an audible creak. "For me, it's the nap. Definitely. I can hardly keep my eyes open."

"I know the feeling," Tony answered.

Neither of them, though, hurried back to the relative comfort of HQ, to the kitchen, or their beds. Instead, with their backs to the sunrise, they watched the Quinjet speed west, until it could no longer be seen.


Tony had no awareness of even feeling drowsy, but he woke up to Bruce's voice, a mouth that tasted like week-old coffee grounds, and a giant brown stain, now cold and uncomfortably soggy against the skin of his chest, spread across the front of his shirt.

"Blech," he said, no other description being possible. "Fuck, what time is it? Are they back?"

"Tony," Bruce said. Just that, just his name, spoken in a soft, breathy voice nothing all like his ScienceBro's normal voice. His hands shook, making Tony think, at first, that he'd maybe decided to go for the coffee option after all--except that, behind their lenses, Bruce's normally gentle brown eyes had gone a swamp-water color, one that usually indicated that he was fighting the Other Guy, and fighting hard.

Tony jerked instantly from drowsily half-awake to full alert in the space of half a second, coffee-stains and all other inconsequential things instantly forgotten.

"I t-think," Bruce breathed, his voice shaking worse than his hands. "Tone, I think... I think it's started."

"Friday, show me," Tony snapped.

Things fall apart... he thought.

Instantly, screens came up, ghostly images of destruction floating in midair: Tokyo, London, Berlin, Beijing.

Washington. The Capitol. The Pentagon.

Fire, and smoke rising, dirty gray, shading into black, unspooling into the too-humid air.

Tony reached out blindly, his hand somehow finding Bruce's arm just as Bruce's hands found him, the two of them clutching onto each other like lost, frightened children, too tight, hard enough to leave bruises, maybe hard enough to draw blood.

"Fri..." Tony gasped. "Contact Hap. Contact Pepper. Get them here now."

"Yes, boss." Even the A.I. sounded shaken.

"Try..." Tony swallowed hard, feeling sick. "Try to reach Rhodey?"

"No luck, boss," she told him softly, moments later.

"Keep trying." He gulped again, the room wanting to spin. "Let me know when..."

"When I get through. Got it, boss," Friday responded.

When, Tony told himself. When, not if. When.

The air seemed to be whining around him, a noise like the air raid warnings in a WWII movie, the sound of London in the Blitz, and frantic families racing for the Underground.

Thor came shambling into the red couch lounge just then, like a sleepy bear, all Jesus-sandals and ratty robe. "Is aught amiss?" he asked, pausing for a huge yawn of his own. "I thought I heard..."

The side door tore open--the one that led out to the alley, by the dumpsters, not the courtyard--and in lurched Scraps, panting and wild-eyed, Rocket piggy-backed, clinging to her shoulders.

"They--" She gasped, then bent over, hands on knees, fighting for breath.

"They're comin' in!" the raccoon yelled. "The Quinjet. Low and hot... gonna crash... Fuck it, Thunder-boy, get your ass out there!"

In that moment, it occurred to Tony exactly what he'd been hearing: not sirens, but the sound of an aircraft coming in far too fast, far too near to the ground and, from the faint whiff of smoke he thought he detected when the door swung open, almost certainly burning, just as Rocket said. He didn't even have to think before his suit, newest and best of all the suits he'd ever made, had formed around his body, and he in his armor, Thor in his sad bathrobe but with Stormbreaker white-knuckle gripped in his right hand, had launched out of the courtyard.

We'll make it, we'll make it, he told himself, even though his genius mind, so adept with numbers, calculations, formulae, knew better, really.

Hope was a wonderful thing, but hope didn't negate the laws of physics, or stop velocity from equaling the displacement of an object divided by a unit of time, or stop the speed of the obviously-crippled Quinjet from being measured in meters per second.

In the air beside him, he heard Thor desperately reciting ancient words of an incomprehensible language, words that Tony recognized, nonetheless, as a heartfelt prayer, and for a second he honestly thought, against all odds and disbelief, that the prayer might work, or that Steve, who whatever else he might be, really was the best damn pilot Tony had ever seen, might pull off a miracle. The Quinjet wasn't coming in wild, that much seemed clear--someone had the wheel.

Already, Friday-navigated Jeeps, loaded with fire-fighting gear, had started trundling across the tarmac, racing toward where the burning aircraft seemed bound to crash.

Tony studied the Quinjet, searching until his eyes stung for signs of a missile hit, a lost engine, a broken wing, anything that might explain...

Only then he saw them. On the craft's stubby wings, on its tail, obscuring its windshield, hanging underneath and tearing into the Quinjet's guts, were things that looked sometimes dark, sometimes mirror-bright, sometimes shimmery and insubstantial as heat-haze, skeletal shapes that, when visible, reminded Tony of dragons, of angler-fish, and of the darkest parts of his own nightmares. A pallid green light shimmered now and then between them, feeble and intermittent, as if it came from a device whose batteries had given up all but the last flicker of energy.

Tony remembered Loki's words, then, about the potential for "hitchhikers," and of traveling through dark waters, and a shudder, born in some primitive part of his brain, coursed down his body.

He gaped at the impossible creatures, breaking into a cold sweat as an indescribable horror gripped at his guts. They terrified him, but he'd have fought them anyway--that was, if he hadn't been powerless, too far away to help the Quinjet, or his friends, even if he shot through the sky at top speed.

Beside him, Thor made a sound--part war-cry, part shout of despair, part a helpless keening of grief for the soon-to-be-dead.

The Quinjet failed to hit the tarmac, instead bouncing higher into the air, only to collide with the low hill where the Troll's Nose stood, battered but triumphant at the end of its journeys.

In a blur of black, not slowing in the least, it struck the little vessel that had saved the last of Asgard's people, slewing half around to hit the hill broadsides, shearing the entire crest down to bare gray stone.

Even inside the suit, the noise of the impact deafened Tony, dizzying him and setting dozens of cathedral bells tolling in his ears. Turbulence knocked him meters off his course, tossing him around like a leaf in an autumn wind, until his whole body ached like one huge bruise.

Numbly, Tony watched Stormbreaker drop from Thor's hand, and then the god himself falling, messily, awkwardly, turning head-over-heels, the tattered fabric of his robe flapping and fluttering around him in the wind.

The plume of green flame that unfurled from where the two crafts impacted could probably be seen, Tony thought nonsensically, as far off as Nova Scotia.

He watched it wave, verdant and almost lovely, a long, long while before he thought, Steve.

Then, Nat.

And, finally, after some endless time, Loki. Oh, my Loki.

Someone--Friday, maybe, or possibly Bruce, had started yelling at Tony through the speakers in his helmet. The HUD seemed to have been damaged in the turbulence: he got flashes and flickers, random numbers, but no real images, nothing he could work with, nothing he could read.

Although he couldn't actually hear anything but the churchbells, Tony felt Thor, sobbing and sobbing, inside his head, and in that particular moment, only the grief of the brother of the man he loved really seemed to reach him, only that seemed important.

He descended, slowly and carefully, into the shadows of the crater where the god lay.

Chapter Text

Thor, being Thor, wasn't really hurt--physically, at least. Down there at the bottom of the bowl of broken blacktop and compacted earth his fall had whomped into the landing field, he'd already started moving, pushing himself first onto his hands and knees, then to his knees alone.

He looked suddenly older, scuffed-up and with dirt showing dark on his face, ingrained into lines that hadn't been there when they'd both fought Ultron. Thor's (apparently) favorite ratty bathrobe had now reduced itself to a collection of rags, and those rags hung randomly around his body, revealing patches of bare skin and a light contusion, here or there, that had already started to heal.

The god's faux eye, functional but never realistic, looked faker than ever, his real, blue eye clear, innocent and terribly young, full of pain so intense Tony had to look away.

He stared up into the sky instead. Only a couple hours before, it had promised a bright, clear day, now Tony saw only darkness above him, the deep purple-black of a bone-deep bruise. Thundershowers seemed imminent, and the foreboding clouds sizzled with a droning szzt-szzt-szzt vibration that Tony still couldn't hear, but that seemed to drill into the bones of his skull and set his teeth on edge.

He'd specifically designed his suit not to turn him into a human lightning rod when the weather got iffy, but that didn't mean he wanted to be aloft when all hell, inevitably, broke loose. Lightning aside, he'd seen Thor's storms in the past, and was fine not having the accompanying winds bounce him around like a Super Ball.

Letting discretion be the better part of valor, Tony set down a reasonable distance away from the god of thunder, slightly up one side of the crater.  Considering that even Thor's friendly back-pats had the potential to do real damage, close, but not too close probably wasn't a bad rule to follow.

His Asgardian friend, despite having plunged to earth from the height of a moderately-tall skyscraper, had already managed to lurch to his feet again.

"Point Break?" Tony called, hoping his voice came across as gentle and friendly, considering that his ears still refused to pick up anything outside of his own personal "Carol of the Bells."

Thor, not entirely unexpectedly, didn't respond. Instead, he'd begun to flail around in a series of abrupt, nearly violent movements, caught up in a St. Vitus's Dance of grief and hopeless, helpless rage, shouting up at the looming sky, "Ekki aftur, ég bið þig, ekki aftur!"

The god's normally booming voice came off as nothing but a whisper over the ringing in Tony's ears. He started to find it hard to keep his balance, all the more so as he made his suit retreat, wanting Thor to see him, to see his face, not some blank, robotic faceplate.

"Thor!" Tony tried again. "C'mon, buddy, it's just me. Tony. Are you okay?"

That surely qualified as the stupidest question, ever, in the whole history of stupid-ass questions, because of course the god wasn't okay, not in any way, shape, or form. Tony literally felt his pain, a river of loss and anguish that flooded over into his own head, dulling his personal fear and confusion to barely a blip on his internal radar, and his bodily aches and pains to something that didn't even register.

Thor, Tony tried, attempting to talk to the god of thunder the same way he so often talked to Loki, but trying to push so much as a single word into Thor's overstimulated brain was like trying to push a pudding cup through sheet metal--it wasn't gonna work. Meanwhile, the god's emotions rang through loud and clear, to the point that Tony's head throbbed, and he felt increasingly sick, capable only of standing (swaying, really) and  watching until the Asgardian finally wound down, too worn out to continue as he'd been.

Thor sank to the ground then, hunching over with his head in his hands, his entire body seeming crushed into a heavy stillness that broke abruptly, now and then, into bouts of uncontrolled shaking, followed by squalls of tears.

Only then, in the quiet, did Tony come to understand an overwhelming possibility...

Loki might have had the Tesseract, but maybe no chance to use it.

Loki definitely had the power to teleport, only... From a moving plane, under attack, and with the others to think about as well?

Would Loki think about Steve and Nat? Would he consider their safety, along with his own?

Yes, almost certainly--of that, Tony felt sure.

He watched Thor's reactions, watched his agony, and thought, You lie to yourself, Stark. You fucking lie to yourself all the time.

Then, What if Thor knows? What if there's a connection, a divine something, and...

Tony had been terrified, convinced, absolutely, that something awful might well have happened. There'd been radio silence, and the way the Quinjet came barreling in hell for leather. The mission, by all appearances, had at least to some extent been FUBAR. Loki, Natasha, Steve, even all three could easily have been injured, by the creatures that attacked their transport, or by the gods knew what else.

He hadn't considered, hadn't ever considered, that they might be dead.

That Loki might be dead, and those crucial words Tony had absolutely meant to say might remain forever unsaid.

That Loki might be dead, and cigarettes would no longer become butterflies, or leaves turn into birds. or unbreakable Asgardian magic-quelling handcuffs transform into warm woolen mittens.

That he'd never again smell snow, and lemons, and evergreens on his pillows, or glimpse Loki's flickering grin.

That his very own god of mischief, with his snark, his wit, his endless literary quotations and disdain for the dog-earring of books, much less his panoply of magnificent dressing gowns could somehow just be... erased from the universe.

He felt as if his heart was exploding, and he wished, oh, gods, how he wished, that the air had run out back on Nebula's dead ship, back when he'd believed that the fairly generous amount he'd loved Pepper was the most that he could ever love anyone.

He wished that everything had ended there, just slipping away into the dark in the company of his regrets, because he still couldn't breathe...

He couldn't breathe...

Tony dropped awkwardly to his knees on the compacted earth, glad the faceplate, and in fact his entire suit, had already gone. He held himself vaguely upright on shaking arms and puked, his whole chest burning, the dark pressing in tighter and tighter around him, until...

Oh, for the sake of all the gods! exclaimed a voice inside his head--a voice that reminded Tony, oddly enough, of balsamic vinegar, sour, sweet and salty all at once. Will the two of you kindly bring the tragedy to a close and return to Headquarters? We three have much to relate, when you're done with weeping in the fields.

Tony wanted to, he honestly did. Wanted to stop shaking, and for his stomach to stop lurching, out of his control, and to be able to breathe again, but he couldn't stop any of those things. His body, in fact, no longer seemed to be his.

Oh, Tony, Loki sighed in his head, even as the world rippled, and the best of all gods's slim, powerful arms wrapped around Tony's body, holding him, lifting him. Oh, beloved.

Tony watched his own hand clutch the front of Loki's shirt, gripping the cloth fiercely. It felt weird against his skin, in no way softly cottony, as it had just hours before, but grimy--almost gritty--and sticky.

Huh, he thought. Odd.

Always the observer. I suspect I got a bit of Þeir milli upon me. There was, indeed, plenty to go around.

'Their Millie?'

Those Between, Loki answered, absently, as the fabric of the universe, touched by Loki's seiðr, began to unweave around them.

Follow when you can, brother, Loki said.

Tony reached out, trying to touch the sparkling threads at the edges of the gap. 

Shiny, he thought. Like being inside a rainbow.

Then the whole world went black.

Chapter Text

After the darkness, Tony fully expected pain, but no pain came along to sink its claws into him: not into his head, his belly, especially not into his chest.

Tony found himself pretty much okay with that situation. He felt fine, actually, and that was the way (uh-huh, uh-huh) he liked it.

He'd expected to wake up to a stressed, worried Bruce, a faux-nonchalant Loki, possibly holding him a little too tightly as he attempted to mask his concern, a Thor who everyone clustered on the sidelines discussed in hushed tones.

He'd expected the landing field, possibly the compound, almost certainly the Medlab.

He got none of that, not even the least little bit. Instead, the strangest sensation came to him: a feeling both of being a solitary guy watching a movie all on his lonesome, an audience of one, and of being right out there in the thick of everything.

The "right out there" in question being a Quinjet. The Quinjet, in point of fact. The one Tony felt close to 100% certain he'd just recently watched collide with a misshapen little spacecraft the few remaining kids of Asgard had named the Troll's Nose, said Troll's Nose and the Avengers' transport afterward having gone up in a towering plume of flame following that moment of impact.

All of which had been both impressive (from a pyrotechnic point of view) and potentially soul-destroying--up until the moment Loki appeared beside him, all snark and consolation.

Loki had been worried about him, Tony remembered. Really worried. Frankly, he'd have been worried about himself, if he hadn't been distracted, at the moment, by one or two things. Those things being (in no particular order): what seemed to be a complete mental meltdown on Thor's part; the presence of what appeared to be inter-dimensional creepy-crawlies tearing apart the Quinjet's exterior paneling; the almost certain death of Loki and companions; the god's reappearance, clearly not not so dead after all and; the extra-distracting distraction of having all of the above taking place while, at the same time, Tony's body gave him every sign of being in the midst of a catastrophic heart attack.

Bruce would probably have referred to what happened as a "Cardiovascular Event," which sounded less like a medical emergency, more like the kind of splashy party Stark Industries put on when introducing some shiny new product. A Cardiovascular Event sounded almost comforting, like something planned for and controllable. Bruce would follow certain steps, initiate certain procedures and everything would turn out A-OK.

Which begged the question, what the hell was he doing here, on the Quinjet, back before a bunch of stuff he clearly remembered happening had even happened?

Loki, still Aesir-pale, and sleek in his combat suit, left off hanging over Steve's shoulder to come aft, moving easily across the SHIELD-logo-patterned carpet to drop sideways onto the seat beside Tony's.

"Confused?" he asked, raising one immaculate black brow, his face simultaneously amused and sympathetic.

"Oh, no, not at all," Tony snarked. "Where are we, really?"

"The question, 'When are we?' would be more pertinent. You are exactly where you appear to be, aboard the Avengers' Quinjet, en route to SHIELD's Mojave Desert research base. Formerly, in this slice of time, you returned to the Avengers' lair with Dr. Banner."

Lair? Tony thought.

"Not this time, though." He frowned deeply at the god of possibly playing fast and loose with the multiverse. "This time you, what? Splintered the time-line?"

The amusement lingered on Loki's face, though the expression had shifted to indicate, besides that, a certain amount of offense. "Tony, please! I'm not an amateur. Also, I possess the Time Stone."

"And so...?"

"And so, time is, as 'tis often said upon Midgard, 'my bitch.' Furthermore, I will be thrice-damned ere I hold you in my arms and again see you suffer dauði hjartans."

"Death of the Heart," Friday supplied.

"Oh," Tony said.

"Indeed," Loki answered. "It will not be. Not if I must bend the stream more times than I have years, and twice as many again."

The god glanced down at his hands, now clamped onto Tony's more than just a little too hard.

"I..." Tony began, more or less as a placeholder. He had no idea what to say to that.

"I don't love easily or, perhaps, well," Loki told him, nearly forcing the words out through his clenched teeth. "I do, however, love, whatever some may say. In fact, my exasperating Midgardian, I love you, and I would remove my own heart from my chest and exchange it for yours before I watched you die for such a foolish reason."

"Wow," Tony said. "Seriously, Loki, I..."

Loki's eyes blazed suddenly, something like two inches away from his. "I require no similar declarations. I'm fully aware of the many areas in which I lack--and yet I will love as I will, and won't be gainsaid. Now be still, and let me heal you."

Tony had just opened his mouth to protest when the darkness slammed down again.

 

The light had turned pinkish-gold again, the same dawn light Tony had experienced once already that morning, with a few differences: a little more red to the pinkness, and a little more purple, reminding him more of daybreak over his house in Malibu than dawn over upstate New York.

"How are you feeling?" Natasha asked, from somewhere close beside him.

"Lok...?" Tony's voice sounded hoarse and shaky, like the voice of an old man, but his earlier, "I feel fine" had switched over to a, "Damn, I feel amazingly much better!"

Natasha's hand, small, and yet so potentially deadly, squeezed his shoulder. "Loki said you might feel a little confused."

Tony swallowed, his throat dry and slightly sore. Nat held a cup for him, with water and ice and a stainless steel straw. It would have been a toss-up as to which tasted better--that water or the vishlar he'd sucked down on the Jolly Ship Nebula, when he first realized he actually wasn't going to die far out in space.

"Okay?" asked the super-spy.

"Fantabulous," Tony answered. He already sounded stronger, more like himself. "So, where is my favorite Norse god?"

"Hooked into Wayback, Jr., preparing for the time jump."

Wayback, Jr.? Why hadn't he named it that? He must be losing his touch.

"Strap in?" Steve asked.

"Would be wise," Loki answered, and just like that, an odd ripple moved down the Quinjet, a feeling as if its structure had altered in some essential way, as if they no longer occupied a rigid box of metal, but instead something changeable, fluid, that flowed around them in constant movement.

Tony felt weightless for a moment, then nauseated, and then a shudder shook the Quinjet from nose to tail.

The sky outside the windows had gone dark.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to that," Steve said, his voice sounding nearly as shaky as Tony felt.

"Target achieved," Loki informed them, his voice, by contrast, coming across as crisp and (possibly) a little self-satisfied--but who could blame him for that, really? 

"I have to say..." Nat threw Loki a quick grin. "Not bad, your godliness. I didn't feel them at all, this time."

"I used a spell of transformation in tandem with the Stone, and though I felt them attempt to catch hold at the barrier, I sense nothing of them now," Loki answered. "What is your saying, here upon Midgard? Third time's the charm?"

"Well, I'm with Nat," Steve put in. "Great work, Lok. Still--and I hope you'll forgive me for this--I don't think I'll let down my guard. I hate those darn things. What did you call them?"

eir Milli," Loki answered, "And in that you're not alone, dear Captain. They are, indeed, detestable creatures."

"'Those Between,'" Natasha murmured, with something--for Nat--close to a shiver. "Soon to appear in my nightmares. I've learned--never trust a monster, or other villain, that doesn't have a real name."

Like 'The Other,' Tony thought, and wondered if Loki was thinking the same.

"Ever we avoid calling that which we most fear by its true name," the god commented. "And so are bears, bears."

"Okay, I take it back, babe," Tony said, "I'm now convinced that that's the most Loki thing you've ever said in my hearing."

Natasha blinked.

"For 'bear' means only 'the brown one,'" the god explained, "And so is only a circumlocution, and not the creature's true name."

Nat blinked again.

"The Latin, ursus," Loki continued helpfully, "Comes much closer, from which we may determine that the men of Rome feared bears far less than did the men of the far North."

"мѐдвед," Natasha murmured, "The honey-eater."

"Just so!" Loki agreed, clearly pleased. "And now, the larger mammals of the Northlands aside, Lady Natasha, might you contact your authorities? They seem rather inclined to shoot us."

"Lady Natasha," not "Agent Romanov." That was new.

With another grin, Natasha tapped her comm and began immediately to rattle off a series of codes. Other codes, none of which meant anything to Tony, came back to her, and apparently one of them contained clearance to land, because Steve set the Quinjet down just outside a large metal-sided building slightly reminiscent of an overgrown garden shed.

A handful of Jeeps were parked near the entrance, and far more than a handful of armed and steely-eyed SHIELDies appeared to be guarding the perimeter.

"Fury wants us to come in," Natasha told them. "He's not exactly happy."

"Is he ever?" Tony asked, struggling with his safety harness. Loki released it for him with a minor hand-wave.

At the same time, the god's clothing rippled from ordinary SHIELD-issue combat wear into something... magnificent, all gold armor and swirling green cloak.

"I think that's my favorite version yet," Steve commented. "I'm impressed."

Loki flashed one of his quick little grins.

"First, beloved," he said to Tony, "Are you well? Will you accompany us?"

"Uh... Yeah, I'm fine. Only why? To talk to Fury?"

"There is a grave threat,"  Loki said, all seriousness. "Long has Asgard watched over your planet, and from afar espied the building of your magnificent tower. Knowing you a prince of your world, and of knowledge surpassing the better part of your kind, I ventured to make contact, for said grave threat is soon to reach Midgard, heralded by the arrival of my poor young brother, Loki, who has been kidnapped and suborned by sinister forces."

"God of lies," Tony mouthed to Natasha. "Since I know Nat," he continued, picking up on Loki's cover story, "I contacted her, and Natasha brought in Steve, right?"

"It's said my poor brother will arrive at any moment, and since I would neither see him harmed, nor see him, when he is not himself, harm those of your world, I have come to represent Asgard, to secure my young brother, and to offer our aid."

"For which we thank you, Prince... Um...?" Tony flashed a grin of his own. "Prince Sven Odinson, of Asgard, wasn't it?"

Loki's grin turned slightly wicked, but at the same time, a wave of mingled playfulness, approval and deep, deep relief washed through Tony's body.

I really am fine, babe, he told Loki, as Steve let down the back ramp, allowing them to exit. Better than, actually. Someday, you'll have to describe to me exactly what you did.

Thank the Odinforce, the god answered, at his cryptic best.

"Watch yourselves with the Director," Natasha somehow managed to say without moving her lips the least little bit.  "Considering that I'm supposed to currently be in an unnamed Eastern European location being faux-interrogated by the less-intelligent part of the criminal element, and Fury thought Steve was in D.C., our presence here is striking him as slightly... 'hinky.'"

Fury popped out of his giant garden shed as if summoned by the mere mention of his name, his big leather coat swirling around his legs (though not quite as dramatically as Loki's impressive cloak) and single eye glaring. Clint followed, bow at ready and a bemused expression on his face.

"Hey, Director!" Tony called out. "Long time, no see."

"Stark," Fury growled in return. His eye took in Natasha and Steve. "Agent. Captain."

When his attention turned to Loki, even his eye-patch seemed to be glaring.

"You're an Asgardian," he snapped. "At least, according to our telemetry. You match the other one."

"I presume you mean, my elder brother, Prince Thor," Loki replied pleasantly, posh Oxbridge accent on full display. "I am Prince Sven Odinson."

"Why you, then, this time? Why not your brother?"

"I am," Loki replied, "Considered, amongst our people, something of an expert on Midgard, your planet Earth, as you call it. Since this is a family matter, and I am both closer in age and in the bonds of brotherhood to Loki, our wise father, King Odin Borson considered me, in this case, the better ambassador. If you would, however, prefer to treat with Thor, that may certainly be arranged."

Loki aka "Sven" smiled sunnily, probably irking Fury no end, and strode through the open doorway, totally ignoring the Director, Clint's bow, and the several dozen big guns pointed in his direction.

"Mr. Odinson!" Fury fired after him.

"Prince Sven will be quite sufficient," Loki called breezily over his shoulder, as those many guns turned into, apparently, ice, and began to drip onto the SHIELDies boots. "Do forgive the precaution, Director. I'm aware that you of Midgard can be at times, suspicious in your nature and hasty in your actions. Furthermore, your--bullets, do you call them?--are unlikely to harm me."

You brought this guy here, Stark, Fury's expression plainly said.

 Seemingly oblivious, Loki swanned all the way up the center of the open space, just to the left of an aisle that resembled a miniature landing strip in the way it had been blocked out and edged with lighted markers. At the nearer end of the strip, a short flight of metal stairs led up to an equally metal platform. At the far end stood a machine, blinged out in shiny chrome but, for all that, strangely eye-like, the blue glow of the Tesseract providing the eye's pupil.

Loki, of course, headed straight for the machine, stretching out a hand toward its many, many, oddly twisty-turny pipes and wires. The tech struck Tony as weird, oddly organic, not remotely functional--and yet, the moment the god's fingertips brushed its shiny surface, the machine instantly started humming.

"No! Please!" Dr. Erik Selvig, a man Tony knew well in the now, but only by reputation in the then, bustled, plaid-shirted and earnest, out of some nearby shadows. "Please, it's very delicate."

"Du känner mitt riktiga namn?" Loki asked the old man quietly, in a language Tony assumed was Dr. Selvig's native tongue, namely Swedish. The words sounded just as... Nordic as the language the Brodinson's used for their more impassioned brother-to-brother discussions, but also, to Tony's ears, more...

Maybe "modern" was the word he wanted?

Or "mundane," in its sense of "from this world?"

Less, anyway, as if the speaker might, at any moment, launch into a bout of epic poetry?

"Du vet vem jag är?" Loki continued, his eyes now fixed on Selvig's bright blue ones. The old man--not surprisingly, given his heritage--did, unquestionably, have blue eyes, though the eyes of the Selvig Tony knew were faded, like wash-worn denim.

I've only asked if he knows me, Loki's voice murmured in Tony's head.

"Ja, Herre." The old man's face, already lined and weary, fell into even deeper creases. "Jag är väldigt förvirrad."

Loki didn't need to translate that one--Selvig's expression radiated pure confusion. The poor guy had to wonder, in that moment, what the hell could possibly be going on.

"Hur är ni här ... och inte här?

"An interesting artifact," Loki commented, not answering the scientist's question, directing his words, presumably, if not his gaze, toward Fury instead. "With a long history. For many years, the Tesseract resided within the vault containing Asgard's greatest--most perilous, some might say--treasures, then was hidden upon Midgard, in care of the good people of Tønsberg, until sought and stolen by an evil Northman in service of a monstrous foe."

"Johann Schmidt," Steve said. "Of Hydra. I... we... took it from him."

"Only to see Schmidt's stolen treasure drop into the icy seas," Loki continued, "From which your father, I believe, dear Anthony, recovered it?"

"That's the story," Tony answered.

"Thereafter, for many years, the Tesseract remained in your land, yes, Director Fury? Its power became a matter of study for the greatest minds of your United States, only to be caught up in the endless, pointless war between Skrull and Kree, and from there to be swallowed up by that most interesting of creatures, the Flerken, and later--correct me if I'm wrong in this, Director--vomited up upon your desk."

"You can't possibly know that," Fury responded.

Loki flashed him yet another sunny grin. "We of Asgard, as you say here, like to 'keep track of our things.'"

"You expect me to acknowledge that the Tesseract is one of 'your things?' And then what, Mr. Odinson? Allow you to claim it, no more questions asked, and take it home with you?"

"That does seem safest," Loki answered, finally turning back to face Fury directly. He looked, all at once, about a hundred times more grim, and a thousand times more serious than Tony had ever seen him. "All those years, Director. All that study, and you've not the least idea what you hold. Are you aware that the cube you call the Tesseract is no more than a container, a shining box concealing a thing of unimaginable power? An Infinity Gem, in fact, formed at the start of the Universe--by name, the Space Stone, which, to those aware of its nature grants the power to traverse any distance with a mere thought. Beyond that, have you the least idea that the Space Stone is not a singular thing, but one of six such Stones, each of a particular power?"

"Yeah?" Fury answered. "Once again, your highness, how can you possibly know that?"

"Because I am a Prince of Asgard." Loki looked taller, weirdly enough, and deeply, icily angry, something like shadow seeming to gather all around him. "And because I, myself, have used some amongst these Stones. I know how their power may corrupt the strong, and make use of the user, until his will is no longer his own, and any good he may have planned has been corrupted. I know the Stones are sought, in this very hour, by a being of might and cruelty beyond that which your mind can conceive."

Fury's expression conveyed that, actually, he could conceive of a hell of a lot of might and cruelty--if "Prince Sven" spent much more time trying his patience.

"This being I refer to goes by the name Thanos," Loki said, a muscle jumping in his cheek, the seiðr beginning to spool out of him in long, thin tendrils of green and gold. "He will come to you in arrogance,  self-righteousness, believing himself and his plan wise and good. Half of all life will fall before him, crumbling to dust, and though you of Midgard fight to your utmost, you will be caught unprepared for him, and you will fail."

"Prince, uh, Sven has the Time Stone, Fury," Tony broke in quietly. "He's seen these things happen. He knows."

"You know I stand up for truth, Director," Steve said. "What the prince has told you is exactly that. We have until 2019, then it's over. We won't be ready."

"And what do you want me to do?" Fury asked.

"Assemble the Avengers, like you planned," Tony answered. "It won't go perfectly, but it will help."

"And after Loki comes through," Natasha told him, "Let us have the Tesseract."

"The portal has nearly opened," Loki told them, pacing, as he would do, back and forth in front of the machine. "I feel it."

He wasn't wrong, and barely managed to leap aside as the machine gave out a final groan. The Tesseract erupted, a torrent of blue flame shot toward the stairs and from that a ring of fire, huge and equally blue, rose to encircle the platform.

The whole building shook, the device with the Tesseract at its heart spun and roared, and all down that aisle, so much like a landing strip, smoke billowed--so much smoke the puffs of pale and dark gray nearly obscured the figure kneeling on the platform.

Oh, Loki, Tony thought, as a younger version of the man he loved rose out of that concealing cloud, Why couldn't we see? Why couldn't Thor see?

The younger Loki's hair had been slicked back, and he grinned a shark's grin, but what really delivered a punch to Tony's gut were all the details they'd just failed to notice: the gauntness of Loki's cheeks and the sweaty gray pallor of his skin, the cold blueish glitter in his eyes and the dark, bruise-like shadows that lay beneath them. He looked shaky, ill, desperate, terrified... and it broke Tony's recently-renewed heart.

What he didn't fail to notice, despite all that, was that, when the machine fell still, his Loki magicked out the real Tesseract (to hide it, presumably, in his pocket universe), then swiftly slipped a decoy into its place.

Oh, the cleverness of you! he thought.

Loki, now intent on his younger self, didn't react. 

Chapter Text

"Loki!" Tony's older-and-wiser god of mischief called, in that voice of his that never sounded loud, only pleasantly-pitched and perfectly controlled, but that nonetheless carried to the back rafters. Also, his voice may have sounded reasonable and calm, but Tony could tell his guy was feeling the stress in a big way: a muscle jumped in his cheek, and his eyes burned with an intensity beyond anything Tony had seen.

Over the noise of the interdimensional-portal-making-machine Erik Selvig had apparently built directly under Fury's nose, and on SHIELD's dime, he could hear the sound of at least one of the Lokis' seiðr  gathering itself, a low, repetitive sound like someone plucking the lowest string on an electric bass over and over and over again...

...brrm... brrm... brrm...

The sound seemed to climb in under the skin of Tony's chest, making his newly-repaired heart thump to its rhythm.

"Loki," the supposed "Prince Sven" repeated. "Prince Loki."

Like Dr. Selvig, the younger Loki seemed to recognize his doppelganger at once. His body froze, though he shook his head, as if in denial of both that oppressive sound (meant, Tony suspected, to confuse and at least partially disarm him) and the presence of his older self.

In that moment of immobility, "Sven" teleported to the platform and, in a blur of motion, clutched at the back of 2012 Loki's neck with his right hand, the palm of his left hand hitting his other self's forehead with an audible smack, connecting so forcefully that the younger god, weakened as he obviously was, staggered and fell to his knees, a thin stream of blood trickling down from his nose.

He screamed then, a terrible throat-shredding sound full of so much pain Tony had to fight the urge to cover his own ears and turn away.

He didn't want to watch what followed that sound. He didn't.

His own Loki's face had gone mask-like, merciless, while his younger self...

That Loki shook, and tears streamed down his face as he stammered out, "N-nei, nei, vinsamlegast, ég v-vil ekki sjá þetta."

No, no, I don't want to see this.

No boasting came from him, no talk of glorious purposes, or philosophizing about whether the ant feared the boot. Tony saw no arrogance in that haunted, miserable face, no swagger or sass in the lines of his slumped body, nothing but an unwilling young foot-soldier caught between two irresistible powers, to the point that he feared for his life--but also wished all this would just fucking end, already.

The same soul-destroying feelings the younger Loki had lived with for the entire past year.

"You lack conviction," Phil Coulson was soon to tell this confused and broken god.

Of course he had. What had his own Loki confessed, just days before?

There is no glorious purpose. There never was. Only loss, control and despair.

"Why must you fight me?" the older god asked, his voice gone soft with a kind of steely gentleness. "I've no desire to harm you. I understand your confusion, and your pain--only I must have what I must have."

"Nei, nei," his younger self breathed.

Tony had never really understood when books described a pair of eyes as looking "beseeching." He understood now. It wasn't puppy-dog eyes begging for treats, the way he'd thought, it was, you might as well murder me as make me do this.

After no more than a minute, older Loki, Tony's Loki, snatched his hand away from his younger self's brow, rubbing his palms together as if trying to wipe the awful memories from his skin. He looked sick, nearly as gray as his double.

The younger god fell forward, barely managing to support himself on hands and knees, panting, head bent nearly to the platform. He didn't glance up, didn't even stir as older Loki gestured, keeping the movement short and abrupt, probably in an effort to conceal the shaking of his hand.

Whether that was the case or not, the Mind Stone flew from the head of the scepter with a sound that seemed more like the absence of sound, like that profound, painful lack of hearing that takes place just before your ears pop. Swiftly, the older god conjured one of his ubiquitous puzzle boxes. In midair, it opened up like a book, riffling pages until Loki finally forced it to still, and the Mind Stone to enter, the whole thing closing up with a foreboding clang, like the slam of a dungeon door.

A second gesture, and the box disappeared into the air.

Loki's eyes, bloodshot and weary, sought Tony's. Tony's jaw dropped, his lips moved, but no words came out.

"I have them now. The Stones. Let's depart." The god's voice sounded thick, as if talking hurt, as if his heart hurt from too much emotion held in so rigidly, because to not hold it back would make him shatter into pieces.

As if he wanted to weep himself dry, but under no circumstances would allow himself to do so.

"Hold on there..." Fury began.

"You're no fool," Loki interrupted, in the same hoarse, tired voice, glancing down at his younger self. "Don't attempt to hinder us, or prevent our departure. You must know it's no use."

He looked back at Tony, now immobile, stunned, halfway between the machine and the platform.

"Tony!" he snapped, eyes flashing. "Now!"

"What the hell, Lok?"

"We've fulfilled our mission, obtained what we sought. We must not linger."

"Hann myrðir mig!" mumbled younger Loki, shocked and broken, his long hair hanging sweaty and stringy around his face.  "Hann myrðir mig!"

Somehow, Tony knew what he was saying: "He'll murder me."

He'll murder me!

"," was all his older self answered, all the weight of the future clearly crushing him, just as clearly done with all this.

Without another word, that Loki turned away, striding toward the still-open door. Tony, Fury, and the other future Avengers stared at him, along with several dozen agents.

None of them tried to delay him. Even with their cover story fallen by the wayside, he seemed too godlike, too alien, unstoppable--even as he staggered slightly and Clint, who happened to be nearest, reached out to steady him.

For a space of maybe five seconds, they traded looks, and in that tiny space of time the younger Loki let out a cry.

The sound hung in the air, reverberating, ringing off every metal surface with the noise of bells upon bells upon bells...

Like Afghanistan in the instant after the IED exploded...

Like the clamor in Tony's ears when the Quinjet hit the Troll's Nose, and both went up in a tower of flame...

With that cry, the younger Loki leaped--or maybe launched himself into the air would have been a better, more accurate description--as if suddenly granted the power of flight. Tony knew how fast he could be, even ill, even injured, how contained, how deadly, and this was no exception. He touched down soundlessly just inside the large, open front door, catching his older self in the act of exiting, the scepter, with its long shaft and cruel, curved, sharp-pointed head already swinging...

Tony didn't black out, not exactly, though he seemed to forget how to breathe. He watched the scepter connect, heard his Loki's soft grunt, saw the huge gout of red leap into the air, and...

Everything went to gray static and random noise, and the next thing he knew, all four of them were bundled together, Steve holding up Loki, who barely managed to keep to his feet, Nat alternately dragging and pushing Tony to keep him moving, until the moment he found himself sprawled across the SHIELD-patterned rug, sobbing for air, the Quinjet already rising despite the wind howling through the half-open hatchway.

"Okay, okay, got it," Steve shouted over the noise, and with a whine of gears the hatch finally ground fully shut.

Natasha appeared to have her arms full of white fluff, and for a moment, in his total discombobulation, Tony thought he'd caught her hugging a cloud--only, a blink or two later, the cloud revealed itself to actually be about every inch of bandage the Quinjet held. Nat fell to her knees on the stained, sticky rug, pressing a huge wad of what she'd carried against Loki's neck.

Her other hand grabbed a fold of Tony's shirt and jerked him closer. "Hold it, Stark!" she yelled. "Hold it! I have to set the time-jump before he passes out."

Tony gaped at her, feeling like the farthest thing from a genius, but some sliver of Nat's orders must have finally cut through his haze, because he found himself with one knee on either side of Loki's motionless torso, putting as much pressure against the white tufts of bandage as he could, even as red wicked up into their fibers and over the tips of his fingers.

His stomach lurched, and he pressed his face against his shoulder, telling himself this wasn't the time or place. No hurling. No passing out. Loki needed him.

Natasha scramble across the Quinjet, pulled herself up on the Wayback, Jr. and hooked herself in.

At least he assumed she did, because the already-familiar shaking, nauseating, vertiginous sensation seized Tony, all reality swirling around him. He didn't let up the pressure on whatever awful wounds gushed beneath those fistfuls of bandage, but he did turn aside to retch, and retch, his mouth flooded with saliva, bile bitter on his tongue, until at last the horribleness ended.

He hung over Loki's hopefully-still-living body, trembling, trying not to collapse as the last of the dizziness faded away.

"Is everyone okay?" Steve called back to them. Tony had to give him major props for sounding like a soldier instead of a basket-case, something he himself never could have managed.

Natasha answered with something extremely emphatic, in Russian. A couple strands of hair hung down over her face, but she didn't even seem to notice. She shut her eyes, pulled in a long breath, let it out and became 100% Natasha again, perfectly collected.

Tony wished like hell he shared the ability, but didn't see it happening, especially not with Loki's blood all over his hands, and Loki's strong fingers biting into his wrists, and Loki's eyes fixed on his, looking to Tony for reassurance.

How could he not give it?

"It's okay, my honey," Tony murmured. "It's okay. You did good. You did great."

"You got the Stones. Both of them," Natasha said, gentle-voiced, as she slid a whole new wad of fresh bandages under Tony's fingers, adding her own hands to the cause. "And we're back safe in 2019. Everything will be fine, Loki."

"My hero," Tony said, bending down to kiss Loki's blood-smeared forehead. "And don't worry. Okay, this is kinda a mess at the moment, but you know Bruce. He'll fix you right up, babe."

Loki's eyes tried to roll back, but he forced himself to hold on to consciousness by sheer stubbornness alone. His fingers twitched against Tony's wrists, their grip loosening, and his lips moved.

Tony couldn't read the word he tried to say. It seemed to start with an "L," then went elsewhere--to an "s" and a "k," maybe?

"What is it, my honey?" he asked. "I don't...?"

"Elska," Nat said quietly. "That's the Icelandic word anyway, and Aes is so similar."

A tear spilled over the lower lid of Loki's right eye. His lips moved again.

"Elska þig," Natasha interpreted, in the same gentle voice. "Is that right, Loki?"

Her eyes sought Tony's. "It means 'love you.'"

Tony swallowed a lump in his throat about the size of a tangerine. His eyes burned.

"Everything okay back there?" Steve called out, sounding simultaneously calm and uber-tense.

Still holding the pressure on Loki's wounds, though his hands had started to go numb, Tony bent lower, pressing his cheek to Loki's cheek, his sense of inadequacy washing through him, his awful lack of ability, for all the millions of words he'd rattled off in his nearly fifty years of life, to say the right words, the necessary words.

He sucked in a deep, shaky breath before murmuring into Loki's ear, "I love you too, Lok. So, so much. Please try to stay with me?"

Loki's fingers twitched again, only a little, on his right wrist--just as the Quinjet dropped something like twenty feet, then slewed wildly to port.

Up front, Steve let out a curse that would have been rated at least a PG-13. "Guys..."

With his head lowered, Tony could more easily hear the scraping below, scritch, scritch, like some giant-sized rat. Natasha shuddered beside him.

"I didn't..." she said. "I couldn't..."

"You did your best," Tony told her. "No one expects you to have 'Avoiding Interdimensional Monsters' in your resume."

Loki tugged on Tony's wrist. His eyes had closed to the barest of slits, but those slits were intent. Fragments of words, barely even sounds, drifted through Tony's head, but along with them came a faint blue flicker.

The Quinjet lurched again.

"Not good, guys," Steve yelled, as the craft tried to stand on one wing and they all slid sharply starboard. "Oh, Holy Mother... On the windshield..."

The blue flickered again behind Tony's eyes, and despite the lack of words, his fear, the sense of, fuck, we're all gonna die somewhere over Kansas and get gobbled up by a monster, Tony knew.

He pulled back a little, trying to make his right hand alone take the place of left and right both in keeping pressure on Loki's wound. He shifted his left hand to hold the god's wrist, instead of Loki holding his, and gently supported the god's long arm as he reached, and reached...

Loki's fingertips disappeared, then his whole hand...

And then the shining blue cube of the Tesseract dropped out of its hiding place, to land with a thud on Loki's chest. 

Chapter Text

"Steve," Tony yelled. "Switch on the damn autopilot and get back here! Do it now!"

For once, Steve didn't argue, didn't suggest a different idea, didn't pause to discuss, just bee-lined straight on back, stumbling a little and going to one knee as the Quinjet gave a major lurch.

Just for a second, his eyes caught Tony's, in a look that clearly said, Not good.

"So not good," Tony hissed out, trying to brace himself so that he--and most especially Loki--didn't go sliding across the cabin with every abrupt change of direction.

It wasn't even as if he could suit up and pop outside for a look-see, not with both hands already occupied and the creatures Loki called "Those Between" (the gods only knew what they actually were, besides fodder for an epic number of future nightmares) causing mayhem with the hardware. The engines--all five of them--had started to rumble and bleat like a herd of dying wildebeests, and the deck below their knees juddered in regular little bursts, until Tony knew, really, without in any way needing to inspect the damage, that it wouldn't be reparable, not thousands of feet up and under the present circumstances, with no one to watch his back and keep the monsters at bay while he played Mr. Fix-it.

The Quinjet would, inevitably, be going down, and sooner rather than later.

"How many of those things latched onto us, do you think?" Steve asked.

"My guess?" Tony tried to listen past the screeching, that and the steady vibrations setting up some kind of weird, random, cycling noise-loop inside his head that made all the bones of his skull feel like they were being forced apart in twenty-two separate directions. "At least five, but probably more."

"Does it matter?" Natasha's hands, still rock-steady over all those wads of bandage, were now bloody to the wrist, and the blue light of the Tesseract, shining on her face, made her look entirely alien.

Loki's eyes, in that weird glow, had gone wide and glassy, with pain, or magic, or a combination of the two. Tony had no idea whatsoever how the god managed to still be conscious. His lips moved, and Tony read the word, Now. Now.

"I don't...?" Steve's face had gone all questioning, young and even scared, in a way Tony had never seen from him before that morning. Cap had to know he'd be the only one, realistically, with even a hope of lifting Loki off the deck, but had no better idea than any of them how bad the god's wound--or wounds--might be (judging by the buckets of blood all over everything, not good). A backboard and/or a cervical collar would probably have been the best of ideas before they moved Loki another inch, but they'd have been an even better idea before they set foot outside of SHIELD's secret desert hideaway, much less took off for the unfriendly skies.

There'd been no time, no time for anything, good idea or otherwise--which struck Tony as ironic, considering they had the Time Stone fully at their disposal.

"Just go for it," Tony said, something close to despair surging up through his chest, making him feel sick again, though he fought down the sensation with all the force of will he could currently muster.

Steve gave him a brief nod, then slid a hand under Loki's neck, lifting the god's inert body as carefully as he could manage, considering that the Quinjet's nose now pointed sharply downward. Within seconds, physics and certain characteristics of Tony's design (that he should maybe give further thought to, in the event that he survived this) would start the whole craft twisting in increasingly faster corkscrews as it plummeted through the air, and they'd be scattered, dead, over some Iowa cornfield, just like Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

No, he thought. Please, just... no.

He watched Steve's lips form a series of hasty words and guessed they were some sort of prayer.

The muscles in Cap's thighs, and in his biceps, bunched as he managed both to get Loki up into his arms and also not to go sliding all the way backward into the pilot's and co-pilot's seats. Tony, nowhere near as strong, wasn't above using the Super-Soldier him as something of an anchor, and neither, apparently, was Nat. Their hands were, after all, otherwise occupied.

Loki's eyes, as Steve held him, opened impossibly wide. His mouth opened, too, on a scream that had no sound.

A stream of dark blood flooded down over his chin.

"No, baby, please, no," Tony found himself mumbling, his thoughts, meanwhile, having reduced themselves to a litany of ...ohfuckohfuckohfuck... He had to drag himself back to a place of something like calm (though it wasn't, it really, really wasn't), in order to bark out his orders to Friday in a voice that--even to him--sounded robotic, stripped of life.

"Fri--Protocol: Last Ditch." With a quick glance at Nat and Cap, he set his free hand on the glowing cube.

The others, picking up on his unspoken instructions, did the same--until Natasha suddenly snatched her hand back and scrambled away.

"Nat! Fuck!" Tony shrieked--only then he remembered what the rest of them, barring their smart super-spy, had totally forgotten: that the Time Stone still sat, firmly ensconced in its socket in the Wayback Jr.

They--he--had been ready to leave it behind on a soon-to-explode aircraft.

Some genius he was.

Steve gave a shaky laugh. "Natasha, we're lucky to have you."

"Hear, hear!" Tony agreed, as Nat tucked and performed a neat little roll, back in position in under two seconds.

In that instant, a wind began to howl, a blue cloud enveloped them, and then they were landing, hard, strewn all over Medlab as Bruce (it sounded like Bruce anyway) let out a howl of surprise.

"Holy toasted fucks!" snapped a voice that had to be Rocket's.

Tony had ended up with his head wedged halfway under a berth--the middle one, he thought--and so could see exactly nothing of the room around him. Shouting followed, such a cacophony of voices he not only couldn't make sense of the words, he couldn't tell who was yelling. Someone with relatively small feet, but wearing stiletto heels, stepped on his thigh, and then some entirely different person was pulling him out from under the bunk, handling his adult-sized body like it weighed nothing, then folding him up in a hug so tight his ribs gave an audible creak.

"Get Loki! Get Loki!" he yelled, his voice somewhat muffled against Thor's mighty chest--of course it would be Thor, who else would be that strong, and also that touchy-feely?--taking no time out for social niceties.

Steve, though, had already done exactly that, placed Loki as gently as he could manage on the bed nearest the door, its white and chrome already splattered with red despite Natasha--dead-pale and shaking--still pressing hard as she could on those blood-soaked bandages.

"It's okay, hon," Pepper said, in a surprisingly tender voice, the heels of her killer stilettos clicking softly on the tile as she slid into Nat's place, nudging her gently out of the way.

Nebula took the super-spy's arm, steering her to Bruce's desk-chair as Rocket pulled a six-pack of Gatorade mini-bottles out of the fridge.

"Drink," Scraps said, pressing one of the bottle into Nat's white-knuckled hands.

Pepper, meanwhile, didn't even look stressed, much less disgusted, only held the red wads of bandage firmly to Loki's throat, shifting slightly when Bruce produced several large white pads--presumably intended for exactly that purpose--to press over the places that had already soaked through.

Rocket handed Tony his own bottle of Gatorade, but even though it might have been good for him, might have helped his shock and time-lag, or whatever this was, his throat felt like it was blocked up with concrete, and he totally lacked the wherewithal even to twist off the bright-orange cap.

"I thought..." Nat began, the half-empty bottle slipping out of her hand. "I thought..."

"We were going to die up there," Steve finished for her.

Their eyes met.

"No!" Natasha snapped. "Just... no!" In two strides, she'd crossed the room, grabbed Thor's brawny arm and hustled him out of Medlab. Tony heard her shouting, the low rumble of the god's answer, then, seconds later, the whip-crack that meant the thunder god, at least, had activated his Stormbreaker Express, bound for parts unknown.

To Norway, please, he pleaded to nothing and no one. To New Asgard. Please, please, let there be someone, anyone there who can help, who knows what they're doing.

He certainly didn't know. He didn't know anything, and all he could do through these brief-and-yet-endless minutes was stand there trembling, shoulder to shoulder with Pep, hoping against hope that the man he'd come to love so unbelievably much wouldn't slip away as he watched.

"I don't..." Bruce's voice murmured, close by his ear. His ScienceBro had been moving around the table, almost drifting, like a ghost, trying to sneak a peek under the bandages, to see what he had to deal with without taking the pressure off the wound and making everything worse.

Bruce, poor guy, totally realized he was out of his depth. Tony couldn't fault him. He'd never trained to heal ancient gods from outer space, much less ancient gods that happened to be half of one species, half of another, with who-knew-what little biological quirks resulting from the combination. Bruce had green in his eyes, and green in his skin-tone, and wasn't that just what they needed at this exact moment? A little "Hulk smash!" on top of everything else.

"Bruce. Buddy." Steve, no coward, jumped into the not-quite-yet-a-fray, taking Bruce's arm, just as Nat had taken Thor's, and steering him safely out of Medlab.

The words, "Let's maybe get some air?" drifted back to them.

So, there they were: no doctor, and not so much as an IV hooked up to restore Loki's badly-depleted fluids. Nebula stony-faced. Rocket twitching. Pepper with her hands and her stylish dress soaked all red, a look of profound sorrow in her normally bright eyes.

Tony felt numb, as if he'd literally lost all his nerves, not even Pep's warmth and closeness reaching him. He hunched over the berth, trying to hold Loki's head perfectly still and babbling about nothing, everything, anything to push back the time when the god--his own personal god, who he found himself willing to worship with his whole heart--slipped away from him, into the dark. 

He knew Loki wasn't really lucid, not as such. Bits of thought went off, now and then inside his head, bright and transitory as fireworks, random shreds of memory interspersed with Loki believing that Pep, with her shining hair and gentle smile, was his mom, struggling still to tell her how sorry he was, that he loved her, that he loved her so much, and always would...

Begging for her to heal him, Now, Mamma, please, Mamma, now, before it's too late for me to turn back again.

Chapter Text


Help--if that's what Thor wanted to call it--arrived in the form of a pair of clearly astonished (and undoubtedly alarmed) Asgardians, who their sovereign king half-dragged down the corridor, brought to an all-but-screeching halt in front of the Medlab door, then conveyed into the room with what he probably thought of as a gentle nudge.

The Thor version of a "gentle nudge" didn't quite equal the force of being shot out of a cannon, but it did  appear to come fairly close.

Luckily, the two, being Asgardians, managed to more-or-less slow their abrupt entrance by clinging onto one another and back-pedaling fiercely, thus avoiding a collision with anything crucial, such as Medlab's pricey medical equipment, or the patient they'd been brought to treat.

Even after recovering their balance and pulling apart from one another, both still looked more than a little flustered, and for that they totally had Tony's sympathy.

For one thing, he suspected they were used to viewing their royalty decently-groomed and lavishly-armored (not to mention seated upon a high, golden throne), and so he really had to wonder how they felt about seeing their monarch, instead, not only up close and personal, but also not exactly rocking his combo of sad gray sweatpants and a t-shirt with visible coffee stains.

Even more than that, Tony had to question how the two of them felt about having been dragged out of bed (at whatever the hell time it might actually be in Norway) still wearing their nighties. Which they were. Both of them.

The old guy's (and by old, Tony meant old, like eighty-something, at least, in human years, which probably meant that, in actual age, he predated Cuneiform) nightgown was much fancier than the girl's, having, as it did, a bunch of that Realm Eternal golden embroidery, not to mention a short train. He'd at least managed to leave home still in possession of a spiffily-embellished pair of red slippers, which peeped out fetchingly from beneath the hem of his gown. The girl (whose nightie was plainer, virginal white, and embroidered in blue) had arrived barefoot.

She also had the biggest damn feet he'd ever seen on a woman--not surprisingly, since she had to be at least as tall as Steve, if not a shade taller. She also, despite her height, appeared to be just about the right age to start junior high school.

Not to doubt the god of thunder, or his good intentions, but Tony felt his newly-restored heart drop to somewhere below the level of his stomach. Loki's consciousness had long since left even the scattered words behind, had reduced itself to nothing but a dull, distant hum on the edges of Tony's awareness. His god needed help, real help, and this...

This was what Thor brought.

As if he'd heard every thought that passed through Tony's head, the god of thunder let his giant weapon (not quite as ridiculous as Thanos's, but a good, close second) crash to the floor--carving out yet another chunk of the concrete--and leaned against the doorjamb, panting, Tony suspected, not with exertion but in the lead-up to a full-on panic attack.

"I..." Thor huffed, his handsome features twisted up into something that strongly resembled the Tragedy Mask at its most tragic. "I... My..."

The old guy, to give him credit, noticed instantly, and gave a sharp nod to his companion, who returned to the corridor.

"Please, your majesty, sit, and recover," the girl said, in a sweet, quiet voice. She took Thor's hand, addressed a few more soft words to him--this time in Asgardian--and although the god gave a jerky shake of the head, he did let her lead him inside and over to Bruce's currently-unoccupied chair.

Thor nearly managed to knock it into next week before he sat, but he did, after some effort, finally accomplish the act of planting his butt on the seat. To Tony's eyes, his movements seemed to carry a strong element of "sit down before you fall down," further reinforced by the thunder god shaking like crazy, up until (and then after) the point that he buried his face in his hands.

The girl rested a hand (again, huge, just like her feet) on Thor's shoulder, her long braid, of the palest possible shade of blonde, falling forward as she bent to speak to him.

The old man said something incomprehensible, then gave a funny, flashing little grin (dissimilar as they might otherwise be, the expression, the gods help him, reminded Tony of Loki).

"Dear, dear!" he tutted, on his second attempt. "It's been so long. So long..."

He blinked eyes as clear and bright a blue as Thor's, then appeared to study the room in a series of curious little darting glances. He was the shortest Asgardian Tony had ever seen, slightly shorter than Tony himself, even, and a bit on the portly side, in a comfortable, hobbity kind of way, with silver hair cut into that style ancient Romans always seemed to get saddled with in the movies. 

Tony couldn't tell whether he spoke English or the Allspeak, but to his American ears, the man sounded properly British, much like Loki, but minus the snark. He gained back a certain amount of hope just from the fact that, flowing nightshirt and decorative slippers aside, the old man didn't seem particularly perturbed by the situation he found himself in.

Mr. Ancient Roman Hairstyle, in fact, seemed to have entirely shaken off whatever ill effects might come  from being Stormbreakered halfway around the world in the middle of the night with absolutely zero notice.

"Very well, then!" he exclaimed, rubbing together his plump little hands, one of which then totally disappeared as he did a sudden reach to his right.

By this time, Tony had ceased being startled by the sight of someone accessing a pocket universe, which meant he avoided total surprise when the hand emerged with what looked like a largish tube made of glass, or some other transparent material.

He immediately bustled forward to slip this tube over Loki's left arm, which it covered from shoulder to wrist (the old man having first vanished his patient's t-shirt sleeve with a type of little finger-wiggle with which Tony had started to become unexpectedly familiar). Another reach, and he pulled out a whole series of what resembled a classier--and somewhat smaller--version of those half-domed snow-globes tourists have been known to buy at souvenir stands.

As a kid, Tony had one of the Space Needle, in Seattle. He couldn't recall who'd given it to him, but he did remember that instead of snow it held little silver shavings of something that, when they fell, were supposed to resemble rain, and when he'd shaken up the globe to watch the rain fall, he'd sometimes daydreamed about taking the long, long elevator ride to the top, then finding out the well-kept secret that it wasn't really some boring, rotating platform high off the ground, but a flying saucer that he and the friendly aliens inside would fly away in, to visit fantastic planets all over the Universe.

Howard, predictably maybe, had broken that snow-globe one night, while drunk--but not, Tony thought, on purpose.

The old man's little half-domes, anyway, didn't hold tiny relics of the 1962 World's Fair, only a pale-green and slightly viscous liquid through which, in some, small beads of garnet appeared to drift gently, while the others held equally small beads of sapphire. 

Tony, blood now halfway to his elbows, wanted to protest, to yell at Thor, to yell at the old man, to make them do something, anything, dammit, as long as it wasn't this freaky New Age bullshit, none of which in any way resembled a legitimate medical procedure.

He wanted--not to put too fine a point on it--to shriek in this elderly slipper-wearing stranger's face, "To hell with this. Help him! Help him!"

"Fear not, elskaði prinsinn," the old man told him, his face serious but kindly, before Tony could assemble anything close to a semi-coherent rant. 

"He is the Deildarforseti Efnafræðiskólans, Shield-Brother," Thor put in, in a thick, barely-holding-back-way-too-many-emotions voice. "He is very wise, for he is not only Forseti of all the Efnafræðingar, but acknowledged throughout Asgard-that-was as greatest in the Listir efnafræðinga."

Which... okay.

"Mr. Odinson says that our... visitor is Dean of the College of Chemists," Friday supplied, after a brief pause. "And is known as the greatest practitioner of the Chemists'  Arts.

"What are these?" Nebula asked, out of the blue. She'd come up close behind him, without Tony even noticing. "These vessels are... strange. I've never seen them."

"The red are nýtt blóð, Lady. Or, as they say in the English tongue, "New Blood." The blue vessels contain what in Asgard is--was--called Elixir Lífsins--'Elixir of Life' in English words, though truly it is, in the main, a stimulant, to aid the continued beating of the heart."

As he spoke, the old man spread  the fingers of his right hand, holding it in the air slightly above Loki's throat. Threads, like the green threads Loki called his seiðr , only a deep, rich blue, twined around his fingers, and his head titled slightly to the side, as if he was trying, with all his concentration, to listen to a faint, distant noise.

"Mother esteemed him greatly," Thor went on, sad-voiced. "She consulted with him often, numbering him amongst the Flottustu kennararnir."

"The best teachers," Friday murmured.

"Groovy," Tony muttered. He couldn't help but notice that, though the last set of pads had soaked through, Pepper had yet to slip another set under his hands. Had even she, in the face of this odd twosome who so weren't what anyone hoped for, seen her optimism, like his, just fade into nothing? Seen it crumble into dust, like...

No. No. He couldn't think of Peter. Not here. Not now.

Not with Loki...

Tony shuddered, a cold wash of dread rising in his stomach, spreading out from his newly Loki-repaired heart to fill his whole chest.

"What is the name of your Ghost in the Wall?" asked the old man (who could only, apparently, be described in lengthy Asgardian words), suddenly, out of the blue.

My...? Uh, what...?" Tony gaped at him. "Excuse me?"

"Friday," Pepper filled in. "Her name is Friday."

Oh, my Ghost in the Wall, Tony thought, wanting to break down and cry. He couldn't do this anymore. He couldn't. 

"Honored Friday," the girl finally spoke up a bit, though her voice trembled slightly. Unlike her companion's her accent sounded, to Tony, heavily Scandinavian. "Will you show us, please?"

Promptly, screen after transparent screen dropped down for their viewing. The old man and his much younger companion didn't seem to regard this as anything out of the ordinary, but scanned each one quickly and intently, asking here or there for closeups, or different angles.

Maybe, if you lived in a place where disembodied old guy heads in lanterns (even those that in no way resembled an actual head) could reliably foretell the future, having a simple Ghost in the Wall provide visual aids didn't seem like any big deal.

To Tony, each picture Friday showed looked more horrific than the one before, as if the younger Loki, in his terror and rage had, with that single strike, tried to butcher his older self, to carve Tony's Loki right out of the world.

He'd known Space Vikings were tough, but how in hell had his god survived that wound by so much as a instant?

How the fuck had he lost so much blood and still lived?

The old man asked Thor a question--quietly, seriously, and in their own tongue. The thunder god shook his head.

Friday didn't translate, and Tony got the feeling he didn't really want her to. Something about that question scared him, but he didn't understand the feeling.

"Galdur," the old man said, with a shake of his head, adding, somber voiced, "Það er ljóst, hann hefur verið bundinn þessu lífi, þessum líkama."

"He says..." Friday paused again, which really, really wasn't like her. Her voice, murmuring directly into Tony's ear instead of broadcasting through the room's speakers, sounded painfully human, just like a real girl, apologetic and sad. "He says there's magic. He says that, somehow, Loki is bound to his body, bound to his life."

And who did that, Lok? Was it your plan, or your dad's?

Tony wasn't sure which answer struck him as sadder.

"It's difficult," the round little man said to his gawky young companion, reaching up to set the loop of a white apron over her head, as she reached back behind herself to tie its strings "But not so difficult for you, Heilari, and your clever hands. Have courage, and do not hesitate, for our prince needs you."

"Ah, but Forseti..." The girl's still childishly rounded, earnest-looking face flushed pink and her gray eyes had gone wide as saucers.

"Nonsense, child," the old man admonished, in a grandfatherly way. "Let me administer another dosage of the elixir lífsins, while you ready your létt-sauma, and then you will do as you were trained, and earn the king's gratitude when you have healed his brother."

Despite the terror on her face, the girl reached into the pocket of her nightgown with a commendably steady hand, pulling out a small black box that opened to revel a light far too bright for Tony to gaze at for more than a second. The girl held still as its brightness spread up her fingers, hands, arms, and then to cover her entirely self, until, for a moment or two, she resembled a statuesque, but slightly homely angel.

As the light withdrew, she freed a small device from inside, then passed the box to the old man, who placed it carefully on Bruce's desk. The girl touched her gadget--which strongly resembled a pencil torch, if pencil torches could safely be constructed entirely out of glass--in a couple places, as if making some adjustment, or checking for functionality, then smiled shyly at Tony and Pepper. "Lady, Sir, the bandages are no longer needed. If you would remove them?"

Tony couldn't move. Pepper also froze, after making one small, soft, incoherent sound.

"Just so, just so," the old man said, in a tone that struck Tony as brisk, but still kind. A little finger-wave from him and the red-soaked wads peeled away, vanishing into nothing, laying bare Loki's savaged...

The noise that escaped Tony's throat wasn't small or soft, though it more than matched Pep's for incoherence. He staggered, and probably would have gone down if his friend hadn't supported him. A second later he felt another small hand curling around his biceps, and heard something that sounded like Natasha's voice, only she might as well have been speaking Russian, because her words meant nothing to him, and neither did Pepper's, nor the words of the two Space Vikings, though at least, with them, the distinct possibility existed that they might actually have been speaking Asgardian, thus excusing his lack of comprehension.

The girl (she really did possess an admirably steady touch) moved her glass non-pencil-torch like someone doing a finicky soldering job, only minus the solder, the flame, the smell of hot metal, or any sense of heat emanating from her device.

Thor, Tony realized, now stood beside the bed, Nebula holding one of his hands. His other huge fist engulfed his brother's hand, though Loki didn't seem to be doing any holding in return. Sweat, red-tinted by all the blood, stood out on his dead white skin.

Briefly, Tony heard water running, then Natasha returned with a damp cloth, gently pressing the wetness away from Loki's forehead and upper lip.

All the while, the girl's gadget hummed, and Tony watched Loki's muscles and blood vessels and skin cease to be raw, torn waste that couldn't possibly belong to any living being, and zip neatly back together, as if by magic.

Which, for all Tony knew, the girl's work might well have been.

Now and then the old man, smiling gently, swapped out a garnet or sapphire, and now and then an emerald or amber snow-globe, and it all looked perfectly peaceful, except for the wetness that continued to gather on Loki's perfectly-still, and otherwise apparently equally-peaceful face, a peacefulness belied by the slow trails of tears that spilled down from his reddened eyes.

Tony understood none of this. Not one bit.

And maybe he didn't want to.

He found himself with his head turned aside, not able to look anymore, because even with Loki healing, it seemed, so perfectly, under the touch of the Asgardians, he'd reached his limit, for the day, of watching, fearing, hoping against hope.

Instead, he stared at the four boxes, and one glowy blue cube, lined up along the edge of Bruce's desk, and thought about how easy it would be to take out one or another of them--the Power Stone, maybe, or the Reality Stone--and just... make a wish.

Just make a wish, and set everything right again.

Just make a wish, and fix our whole world.

Five Stones, that ought to be enough, right? To fix one little world?

One wish... and they'd be Happily Ever After bound.

No, beloved, Loki commanded, inside his head, his mental voice gentle but stern, and so quiet Tony had to strain to hear, "Have you not understood? They are liars and deceivers, as I've told you, and not now, or ever, for you to use.

Chapter Text

Anyway, the chapter should appear sometime this weekend. Next stop, the Soul Stone!