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Hel is Other People

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"As for me, I am mean: that means that I need the suffering of others to exist. A flame. A flame in their hearts. When I am all alone, I am extinguished"-  Jean-Paul Sartre, "No Exit"

 

“So what if I ate the cheeseburger?” Tony shouts, throwing a wrench at Loki’s head.  The bastard dodges it easily as he stalks closer. “That doesn’t mean I belong to you!”

“Oh, not to me,” Loki says lowly, a smile like honey slowly spreading its way across his face. “But with me? Surely you’ve heard of Persephone.”

“A cheeseburger isn’t some fucking mystical pomegranate, you smirking lunatic.” It isn’t, it just isn’t. Not even close. "You aren't even Greek!" he adds, throwing another wrench which is dodged just as easily.

Loki spreads his hands wide, posing like the showman he is. “I think you’ll find that a pomegranate symbolizes the fruit of the dead. Your cheeseburger, made of dead flesh, was topped with fruit. It’s close enough for the symbolism to bind.”

“Ah-hah! There’s no fucking fruit on a cheeseburger,” Tony says triumphantly, finger pointing accusingly at Loki. “I fucking win, no going back to crazy town with you. I stay here in my workshop, and you fucking leave before I call the Avengers.”

“Oh Stark,” Loki murmurs, almost affectionately. “A tomato is a berry, you ignorant fool.”

“Well shit,” says Stark, before the darkness claims him. The last thing he sees are the whites of Loki’s eyes gleaming with triumph and a smile like a knife, suddenly too close, arms wrapping around him.

Then he is gone.

Seven months earlier…

It’ll be a warm day in Hel before Thor will say, at least out loud, that he actually sort of enjoys fighting his brother. Oh, he didn’t enjoy the skirmish after his banishment, nor did he relish Loki’s madness during the Chitauri invasion, but…

“Bag of cats,” Bruce mutters through the comms. It is an apt description, loathe as he is to admit it. Fluffy, adorable, dangerous, trapped and growing more enraged by the second. That is definitely his brother.

Thor knows his teammates are not entertained by Loki, but these days there is no malice in the mischief, there’s just…

“Seventy foot tall marshmallow man. Who the fuck let Loki watch Ghostbusters?!” shrieks Tony, attacking a giant white monster with a terrifying visage, large eyes scanning back and forth in ceaseless sentry. For all its menace, the… marshmallow man is not actually destroying anything. It has not scratched even one vehicle. Thor is proud, almost.

Thor is amused, definitely.

But again, he will never, ever say it out loud. Not to his friends, certainly not to his brother, who even now is attempting to steal something powerful and dangerous. The theft is not something Thor is proud of, and he does wish to stop his brother and make him pay reparations, but these fights remind him of younger days, when Loki directed his mischief at their mutual enemies. Although, the marshmallow man is definitely a new addition to the bag of tricks. A terrifying addition.

Thor leaves behind the marshmallow man and concentrates on finding his brother.

This is the other reason Thor (is ashamed to admit that he) enjoys fighting his brother, because it is often the only chance he has to speak with his brother. These days there is also less malice in their exchanges. Perhaps something is healing. Perhaps someday they will meet off the battlefield.

Thor hates the little spark of hope within his breast. He wishes to snuff it out, but he can’t. Their mother had hope. He has to have hope, even if he says he doesn’t. He resents that light in the way he cannot quite bring himself to resent his brother.

His brother that he thought dead.

His brother who stole the throne unbeknownst to all and spent a year bringing great prosperity to the kingdom before abandoning it again in spite, returning its bewildered and warmongering king to the throne, just to show its people what they could have had if only they’d remained loyal.

Which is classic Loki; rejection always sat ill with his brother. Loki would spend great effort winning the affection, admiration, or respect of whomever had delivered the blow to his ego. Once Loki’d won his prize, he’d lay his victim low and throw it back in their face.

There’s a reason nearly everyone in the kingdom hated him. Over the centuries Loki managed to bring low anyone who slighted him (or whom he had imagined slighted him), and that was most. Again Thor can admit his brother's faults, even if it does not matter. Thor still loves his brother.

The Midgardian cat has taught him much about the nature of his brother, which is yet another thing Thor must never, ever say out loud. So many secrets to keep, it drives him mad at times. But yes, the cat. The phrase “bag of cats” was thrown around so often in regards to his brother that Thor finally decided to conduct research on the comparison. On first examination, the cat seemed a truly inappropriate creature to compare to his brother. Thor would have chosen a wolf, perhaps.

Then Thor met a cat. The cat was lovely at first and spent a good few minutes letting Thor pet its fur affectionately, only to turn around and sink needle sharp claws and fangs into his hand with no warning. As Thor blinked down in hurt amazement into wide green eyes, he felt a sudden understanding.

He has since adopted five cats and named each in honor of his brother. There is Silvertongue, a white, one-eyed cat that spends much of its time hiding under the bed. There is Skywalker, a blue Persian that will surprise Thor by jumping down on him from on high. There is Liesmith, a fat tabby that cannot (or will not) learn to use the litterbox. There is Hveðrungr, a bright orange menace that attacks him whenever he strolls down the hallway of his apartment. Finally, there is Loki, a black kitten that spends much of its time yelling at the other cats and pushing pottery off the windowsill.

Thor loves all of them dearly and buys them many gifts which are carefully ignored. It’s just like living with Loki again.

By chance he manages to find his brother, leaning against the wall in a stinking alley. “I’m here to stop you,” Thor says, half-heartedly. Loki snorts in amusement and turns his gaze back to the giant white monster he has summoned.

“I already stole what I came here for. I’m just… enjoying the view,” Loki says. Thor turns back to look at the thing as it lumbers its way through the city.

“It’s disgusting,” Thor proclaims, turning back to his brother. “Your heart no longer seems to be in this. You should come back with me to my apartment, talk with me. Maybe we can--”

“Back with you to your shoebox and your five cats. You’ve turned into a Midgardian matron, my brother,” Loki says, bitterly amused.

So Loki has been to his apartment? Thor holds his tongue but secretly is thrilled to know that Loki has shown some sort of interest in his life. Also, he is thrilled that Loki has not harmed any of his cats.

“They are good cats, as far as their nature goes. They are willful, violent, sullen, private and territorial,” Thor says with a twinkle in his eye. “I love them dearly.”

“Tell me you didn’t name one of them after me,” Loki begs.

“I did not name one of them after you,” says Thor, quite truthfully. I named them all after you, he doesn’t say.

“Thank the Norns for that. I would not wish to see my brother stoop to such a level of pathetic, sentimental--”

“Think fast, Rudolf,” Tony shouts, and blasts Loki. Thor turns an angry glare at Stark, but his brother is already charging out of the alleyway, magic glowing in his fists.

“I will ride your carcass like a sled down through the gates of Hel,” Loki shrieks, ripping at metal.

Tony says “Kinky,” before grabbing Loki around the waist and shooting upwards. Loki’s response is lost in the wind, but it sounds vicious. Thor sighs, exhausted, but follows after to protect Stark from his brother.

“Bag of cats,” he mutters as Mjolnir dutifully carries him upwards.

Chapter Text

"Mere chance? Then it's by chance this room is furnished as we see it. It's an accident that the sofa on the right is a livid green, and that one on the left's wine-red. Mere chance? Well, just try to shift the sofas and you'll see the difference quick enough. And that statue on the mantelpiece, do you think it's there by accident? And what about the heat here? How about that? I tell you they've thought it all out. Down to the last detail. Nothing was left to chance. This room was all set for us." -Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

Tony classifies villains into one of three categories: Funny, not-Funny, and Loki. Oooh, that Loki. He makes Tony want to use the word “dastardly” without a trace of irony.

During the marshmallow man incident Loki managed to seriously damage Tony’s armor, and that’s a no-no.  It actually ended fairly anti-climatically after Loki appeared long enough to give a speech which boiled down to "You're a bunch of a-holes and I hate you forever", before snapping his fingers and disappearing along with Stay-puft-zilla. Tony curses and frets in the workshop, trying to fix the wiring on the left arm which has been mangled. It no longer fires, which means something is seriously jacked up.

It’s the first time in a long time that Loki has done any real damage to any of them. “Guess Loki’s having a bad day,” Tony mutters, shaking his head.

“You have no idea,” comes a voice from his left. Tony instinctively throws a wrench and ducks below the table. Loki chuckles, walking forward at a leisurely pace until his boots stop right in front of Tony. Friday is silent (disabled?) and there are no weapons close at hand. Loki grabs Tony by the hair, dragging him out, unfettered by Tony’s struggling. “You managed to destroy the manuscript I’ve been trying to steal for a month, with your little ambush.”

“Fuck you,” gasps Tony, the pain in his scalp making him a little breathless.

“If only your offer was tempting, I might spare you your life, but as it is I am uninterested in taking my pleasure from your little husk,” Loki hisses.

But he makes no real move to kill Tony, which means that he actually wants something from Tony in return for destroying the manuscript (what the fuck was on that thing?), which means that Tony has some sort of chance here. He’ll escape with his life and fuck Loki over at the same time. He’s done it before (the cave is a part of him, the womb he was reborn from, the ashes he rose from) he can do it again. “What offer could I make that would tempt you?”

Tony is not above begging. He is never above begging if there is a chance to survive, because pride, or anything that gets in the way of getting what he wants, is not worth having. If there’s no chance of survival, then it’s all venom and daggers, but as long as there’s a chance…

Loki looks delighted, tugging at his hair playfully. “You would make an offer to me so readily? Me, your greatest enemy?”

“You aren’t my greatest enemy. Not even top ten,” Tony says immediately, because even if he's begging, he's still going to sass for all he's worth. He’s a genius; multi-tasking comes with the territory.

Loki laughs a little but it’s not in a ‘haha funny’ way, it’s more of a ‘I’m a deadly god, tread carefully’ way. “I find myself jealous at the thought of you ceding my territory to some other villain, Stark. I should be number one on your list.”

“Well you are number one right now, if that makes it better,” Tony supplies helpfully.

“Mm, yes, I find it does,” Loki says, releasing his grip on Tony’s hair. “You will willingly make reparations for my lost property, then?”

“You stole it, it wasn’t yours,” Tony says, getting to his feet.

The god looks at him thoughtfully. “If I steal something, it becomes mine. That is how stealing works.”

“Oh my god,” Tony groans in annoyance. “And don’t make the joke. Thor already made it, and it wasn’t funny when he did it either.”

Thor loves to answer “Yes?” anytime someone says “oh my god.” It’s really, really annoying. Loki looks disappointed, which means he was just about to make the same joke.

“Fine. You will make reparations to me. Swear it,” Loki demands, holding a hand out to Tony.

Oooh, this feels really Faustian all of a sudden.

“Not shaking until you define the terms, and until you swear not to harm me,” Tony says, crossing his arms sullenly.

Loki’s eyes widen in rage. “You are in no position to make demands, little ant. You will capitulate or I will decapitate.”

“Fuck you,” Tony says again.

Loki pinches the bridge of his nose and whines tightly in the back of his throat. “I can’t believe I am reduced to bargaining with a mortal, like some lowly devil. Fine, here are the terms, vile worm. You will create for me an energy source like the one in your chest, with a few modifications. Once you have completed this task, your debt to me is paid, and you are free to go about your merry way.”

Like fun is Tony going to make Loki an arc reactor, but Loki doesn’t need to know that. “Yeah, okay,” Tony says, reaching forward to shake hands with the devil.

Red light arcs from their hands as they touch, and Tony feels something writhing under his skin, wrapping itself around his bones. Loki looks triumphant. “You are bound. Renege on our deal and your life is forfeit.”

“Aw hell,” Tony says.

Loki's smile ramps up the creepy all the way to eleven. "Exactly."

“Come again?” Tony asks, but they are no longer standing in his lab. They’re standing in the middle of a cold as balls clearing in a dark forest, and Tony’s already freaking out. “This wasn’t part of the deal!” he rages. Then is forced to ask “Where the fuck are we?”

“We are in Hel,” Loki answers, then he turns on his heel and starts stalking off into the forest. Tony stumbles after him, cursing the whole way.

“How am I supposed to build you anything if I don’t have tools? Or my lab?” Tony reasons, hoping that Loki will be made to see reason.

“I have tools and a workshop already. You will have the full use of it,” Loki says over his shoulder. “Keep up, keep up. I can’t be made to dawdle. My legs are too long, and slowing down to this unnatural pace is difficult.”

“Bastard,” spits Tony, hurrying as fast as he can. Although, walking at this pace is definitely helping to keep the chill at bay.

Eventually they arrive at a cabin. It is literally a cabin in the woods and Tony’s inner horror fan is screaming bloody murder. “I’m gonna die here, aren’t I?” he asks, dully.

Loki laughs, this time in actual amusement. “Rest assured, I would not kill you for all the nine, Stark, not unless I had to. You are always more useful to me alive, even when you are ruining my plans. Now, get inside, or I shall lock you out.”

Tony hurries to comply because the forest is super creepy. He swears he just heard a wolf howl in the distance.

They enter a small foyer, remarkable only for its lack of remarkability. There is a low table upon which rests a small arrangement of sweet smelling flowers, little starbursts of white among dark green leaves, and next to it a heavy brass coat stand, onto which Loki drapes his leather duster. On the wall is a painting of a golden city.

It is the entrance to a home, not a villainous lair or some princely palace.

Loki removes his boots and leaves them near the door, so Tony does the same. It’s weird, seeing Loki without boots and his sweeping coat on. He looks less threatening, although Tony doesn’t make the mistake of believing that for an instant.

“Come, I shall show you to your room,” Loki says in an almost welcoming tone. It’s creepy.

“Oh thank god. I was worried we’d have to share a bed for a moment,” Tony says.

Loki turns back to stare at him with something akin to horror. “If I only had one bed you can rest assured that you would be sleeping on the floor. I don’t share my bed with animals. That’s how one gets fleas, which my brother should know about.”

“I thought Jane dumped Thor…” Tony said, frowning and trying to ignore the impulse to address the ‘animal’ comment. That would only bring Loki satisfaction.

“I was not referring to the woman, I was referring to the cats,” Loki says, coming to a stop in front of a door near the end of a long hallway.

“So humans are like cats to you?” Tony asks, squinting up at Loki.

“No, humans are like ants,” Loki says, smirking.

Tony closes his eyes, sighing in frustration. “I’m so confused right now."

Loki adopts a look of condescending pity. “It is your natural state, I’m sure. Now, get rest. Once you awaken I shall expect you to start fulfilling your end of our agreement.”

Tony closes the door behind him and locks it, which only makes him feel a little safer. It’s unlikely to keep Loki out, should Loki decide he wants to get at Tony.

The room is as unremarkable as the rest of the house, although it is a pretty little room. There is a comfortable looking bed with a lacy coverlet, a small table with a lamp, a desk placed by a window, and a low dresser. The walls are a soft peach color which almost glows in the light of the lamp that rests on the bedside table. Two pictures hang on the wall, framing the bed; one is of a small wolf pup fast asleep in a meadow and the other is of a small snake which rests on a pillow. Tony takes a look inside the dresser and discovers it is filled with his own clothing, soft band-ts and jeans which earned their rugged distressed look in his workshop.

“Okaaay, not the creepiest thing that’s happened today, but still creepy.”

And considerate, but Tony tries not to think about that.

Tony changes into his pajamas (which have been brought along, great), and climbs into the bed which is very, very comfortable.

He falls asleep faster than he means to, and sleeps easier than he should.

Chapter Text

 "I know. And you're another trap. Do you think they haven't foreknown every word you say? And of course there's a whole nest of pitfalls that we can't see. Everything here's a booby-trap. But what do I care? I'm a pitfall, too." -Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

Tony wakes up to Loki gently rapping at the door with his knuckles. "Awaken, Stark."

Being woken politely by the God of Bad Decisions is such an absurd fucking way to start the day that Tony's mind disconnects a little, and any flicker of panic is sort of snuffed out before it can turn into a blaze. He showers and dresses, and actually feels refreshed, which is a rarity even when he isn't trapped in hell with his own grinning demon.

Loki makes him breakfast, some sort of egg thing that looks great, but Tony doesn’t feel like eating so he declines.

“In that case, we begin,” intones Loki, leading Tony towards one of the many doors in the hallway, and ushering Tony inside.

Tony walks into Loki’s workshop and is immediately jealous. It’s a fucking playground and there’s some TARDIS shit going on because it’s much larger inside than what the outside of the cabin allows. “I hate you,” Tony says to Loki, who shrugs indifferently.

“What do you require to make my energy source?” Loki asks.

So Tony gives him the rundown, and Loki retrieves everything that will be needed for the first few steps.

Over the next couple days Tony discovers, to his dismay, that Loki’s… helpful. Steady hands, efficient, quiet. Tony finds himself wishing that he could have Loki work with him in the lab all the time (or maybe he just wants a lab partner--doesn’t have to be Loki, better if it wasn’t Loki, no Loki at all would be peachy, no Loki). When Tony needs something, Loki is already handing it to him; when Tony gets tired Loki coaxes him out of the workshop with words that don’t make him feel like a child (Pepper and Rhodey are the loves of his life, but they can be so condescending sometimes).

Loki is also a lot kinder than Tony could ever have expected. Tony burns himself badly during the smelting process and Loki rushes over, hissing in sympathy. He takes Tony’s hands in his own.

“Fuck,” Tony whimpers. It’s bad, he knows it. There’s going to be nerve damage, and the fear and pain make him cry despite his best efforts to remain stoic. No more golden eggs says a nasty voice in the back of his head that sounds too familiar.

“Shh, Stark. All will be well,” Loki says, and there is nothing mocking or cruel in his tone. Loki begins to hum a low melody, like a lullaby. It calms Tony immediately. Then the wounds begin to hurt less, and Tony stares in amazement as the burns begin bubbling away, leaving behind undamaged skin.

“There you are,” says Loki, smiling gently at him. “No harm.”

Tony finds it harder and harder to dislike the bastard as the days pass. Loki is a morning person (the most cheerful, chipper, chirpy morning person Tony has ever met) which is annoying and weirdly charming in equal measure. He will sing as he cooks breakfast, pretty little songs in a language Tony can't understand. He is frequently barefoot and favors loose clothing in soft fabrics. His sense of humor is odd and unexpected, and sometimes downright juvenile (Loki replaces Tony's shampoo with mayonnaise one morning, but Tony's hair has never been softer so the joke is on Loki).

It's hard for Tony to reconcile this man with the one that threw him off his own tower. 

Despite it all, Tony tries to find a way to sabotage the reactor, but every time he thinks about it the oath around his bones tightens until he gasps in pain. Loki smirks at him knowingly every time, but chooses to say nothing. In the end Tony surrenders to the fact that he’s just going to have to destroy the reactor after it’s built.

“What were your modifications?” Tony asks on the fourth day, as they take a break in the kitchen. They didn’t get that far, but important ground has been covered. It should be complete by the end of the week.

“I need a different element in the core than what you currently have in your own,” Loki says, scraping a chunk of bread through the thick stew he is eating.

Tony's been keeping hydrated from the tap in the bathroom, but has been refusing to eat or drink anything Loki gives him (which has been very difficult as Loki appears to be a great cook), not entirely certain that Loki won’t just try to poison him. Loki hasn’t said anything about Tony’s continued lack of appetite, which is great, because that would be an awkward conversation. “Look, you’re being civil and all, despite the kidnapping and keeping me in hell thing, but I can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to kill me in a really awful way.”

Yeah, awkward.

There’s another part of Tony that vaguely remembers a story about a chick getting stuck with the god of the underworld ‘cause she ate something he gave her. Details are fuzzy, but forced marriage was definitely a part of the proceedings. The longer Tony stays in Loki's company, the more he thinks about that story, trying to recall details that he was never 100% on to begin with.

“Different element might not work, depending on what it is,” Tony says, raising an eyebrow. “What are we putting in there?”

Loki just smiles at him and Tony sighs. Hell, maybe Loki will sabotage the damn reactor himself.

A week passes and Tony remains on schedule, even though he is growing increasingly lightheaded. He can handle it though, this isn’t the first time he’s gone without food for this long.

Tony’s on schedule. Loki is not.

“So, this element you want me to place in the core…” Tony says, pinching the bridge of his nose. He leans against the workbench, hunger making it hard to stand upright for long.

“Yes, Stark?” Loki asks, the smirk twisting his voice up at the ends.

“This element that is the final step of me getting this godforsaken task over and done with…”

“Yes,” breathes Loki gleefully.

“You don’t even have it yet,” Tony finishes.

“I do not have it yet,” Loki confirms.

“How long will it take to get this element?” Tony asks. He’d give anything for a steak right now. He’s so hungry and so angry.

“My source estimates at least another week, maybe two,” Loki says. His hands are clasped behind his back and he rocks back and forth on his heels innocently.

Tony can’t put it off any longer. “I need to eat something, okay? I probably can’t live that long without food.”

“I’m not preventing you from eating,” Loki snaps. “I have made sure food is offered at least three times a day, or do I have to chew everything and spit it into your mouth for you like you are a hatchling?”

“Oh, never put that image into my mind again, thank you,” says Tony, retching mentally. “And that’s not the point. I’m not going to eat something that you made.”

Loki is immediately affronted. “I would never harm a welcomed guest in my home. I resent the implication, and were you not currently a guest in my home, I would defend my honor forcefully.”

“Yeah, maybe you won’t harm me. Maybe you’ll trap me, or some shit,” Tony says darkly.

Steak. Steak and a potato with everything on it.

“Trap you?” Loki asks, anger melting into confusion. 

“It’s underworld shit, or something. Surely you’ve heard of Persephone.”

“Explain, if you would be so kind,” Loki asks politely, head tilting in curiosity.

 “This chick named Persephone, uh, daughter of a goddess or some shit. I think? I can’t remember. Anyway, this chick is wandering around, and Hades, who is the god of the underworld, sees her and is like ‘schwing’. So, he kidnaps her, and makes her eat dead flesh, or fruit, or something. Or no, maybe it’s a pomegranate? Yeah, pomegranate, the fruit of the dead. Symbolizes dead flesh maybe? Looks kinda like something you’d find in a body, so I guess it scans. God, I really want a steak.”

Loki frowns in confusion “So she eats dead flesh and fruit, and this binds her to a god?”

“She goes back up to see her mom at some point, but yeah. She's stuck a month for each bite she took in the underworld with Hades.”

“This sounds too simple and very unlikely,” Loki says, squinting suspiciously at Tony. “You swear that were I to somehow goad you into eating dead flesh and fruit, I’d have a month’s claim to you for each bite you took?”

“Yeah,” says Tony, not really listening anymore. He’s imagining the smell of brandy sauce, the tang of a good beer, the taste… the taste… he feels like his whole body is tingling with want, hunger aching and wrapping around his bones. “Something like that…”

“How odd,” says Loki. “Even odder that you’d think I would wish you to stay by my side, but then you have always been delusional.”

The topic is dropped like a hot potato (with sour cream and bacon, and chives and cheese) and not brought up again.

Until Tony faints in the workshop.

When he wakes up he’s in bed and Loki is hovering anxiously by his side. “You must eat, Stark,” he says. There is a pork chop on a plate and Loki picks it up purposefully.

“I won’t,” Tony says.

“I’ve no wish to harm you. I swear on my life that I will never poison you, now eat,” Loki says, fire in his eyes.

Tony takes the plate and gazes at it with lust. It’s a very nice looking pork crop, browned and crispy on the top, tender and juicy looking in the middle. It’s split neatly and stuffed with an apple and cranberry stuffing. Tony is about to take a bite when he remembers what he said to Loki.

Dead flesh and fruit.

Tony looks up at Loki who is watching a little too intensely.

“Thanks, but I hate pork,” Tony says, handing it back to Loki who frowns but takes the plate away without question.

The next evening Loki tries again. Tony is presented with roasted duck breast in a sauce that is dark and rich. It smells amazing and Tony lifts a bite to his mouth eagerly before he catches Loki’s gaze. Tony takes a moment to reassess the dish. “What is in the sauce?” Tony asks, setting the fork back down on the plate.

“Black cherries,” Loki says, and his smile is too innocent.

It breaks his heart, but Tony says “Allergic to cherries,” and gives the plate back to Loki.

The next night, Loki presents him with a salmon filet that is so gorgeous Tony almost gets a boner. But the glaze…

“Marmalade,” Loki says, smile stretching his face wide. “Let me guess, a fish insulted your mother once, and consuming marmalade is against your religion.”

“Got it right on both counts,” Tony says, handing the plate back. He is actually on the verge of tears. “Please just bring me something I can eat.”

Loki clicks his tongue and gazes at Tony sadly. “I had not meant to torture you, Stark, merely tease you. After all, you said that the god had bound his mortal with a pomegranate. Nothing I have presented you contained even a trace of pomegranate.”

“Yeah, but it’s dead flesh and fruit. The symbolism is probably close enough to bind. I know you magic people are like lawyers, the way you twist words to fit what you want.” Tony folds his arms. “I’m not eating anything you make.”

“Stark,” Loki says warningly, a trace of anger in his tone.

“Not eating.”

“Stupid, stupid man!” Loki yells, taking the fish with him. Tony mourns the loss.

Tony remains in bed for the next three days, feeling weak and fluttery, and each day Loki waltzes in with something delicious on a plate. But Tony, despite what everyone else thinks, is very good at keeping himself disciplined. At least when there’s a really good reason for it.

On the fourth day Loki surrenders. “I will bring you food from Midgard, anything you desire, if you will but eat,” Loki says. “Please, Stark, I will not have your death on my head, though it be by your own foolishness.”

Tony thinks about what to ask for, but the answer is obvious. There is only one thing that will bring comfort to him in a time of need, only one thing that can make this dire situation look tenable by comparison. The worst food on the planet. The only thing that can satisfy him. “Bring me a Whopper with cheese,” he says, coughing gently, pathetically, in an attempt to speed Loki on his way.

Loki rolls his eyes, but leaves immediately to fetch Tony’s request. He returns twenty minutes later, looking agitated. “Your Burger King needs to take firmer hold of his kingdom. The subjects are… unruly, to say the least. Beastly, to say the worst.”

“It’s part of the fast food experience,” Tony says, making grabby hands at the greasy paper bag, which Loki hands over immediately.

“Ah, like trading with dwarves, I suppose,” Loki says, nodding sagely. “The experience would lose some of its… charm, if one did not have the shouting matches and inevitable scuffle to look forward to.”

“I say shouting improves ever—mmphh,” Tony interrupts himself mid-word by taking a large bite of the cold, greasy burger. It’s terrible. It’s perfect. It makes Tony rethink all of his life choices and vow to make changes, like this burger is a baptism or a confession. He is born again.

But after six bites he cannot continue. His stomach, unused to food, starts cramping a little, and Tony sets aside the rest of the burger. “Thank you,” he says sincerely, and Loki nods.

“And my gratitude to you, Stark. I would have been distressed to be faced with your corpse outside of the battlefield.”

“Nice,” says Tony. “I’m gonna sleep off this burger now. Wake me up when it’s time for me to put the element into the thing… thingy.” Tony yawns as he starts falling asleep, eyes closing.

As he slips away from consciousness he swears he can hear Loki chuckling darkly. It sets him on edge, but then he’s under into a dreamless sleep and he forgets.

Chapter Text

"I'm going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become." -Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

Silvertongue is sitting on his chest, eyes closed and purring loudly, when Thor is notified of Tony’s disappearance. The little phone they provided him starts buzzing loudly and Thor fishes it out of his pocket as smoothly as he can, not wishing to disturb Silvertongue’s slumber.

“Aye?” Thor says into the phone.

“Hey, it’s Steve. Tony’s gone missing, we need you at the tower.”

“I will be there in a trice,” Thor says gravely and ends the call.

But Silvertongue does not care, much as Thor may plead. It is as though Mjolnir sits on his chest and he is unworthy to lift it. He should be speeding on his way towards the tower to assist in the search for his shield brother, or at the least to offer comfort to his friends. But Silvertongue’s eyes are closed and—

Oh—

A little pink tongue peeps out from between Silvertongue’s fuzzy jaws. Thor is ensorcelled by the cat, bound to lay there for all eternity or at least until it is time for Silvertongue to hide under the bed again.

Then Loki (the kitten and not his brother) comes yowling into the room, startling SIlvertongue, and Thor is freed. He rises and speeds his way towards his duty after saying goodbye to each of the cats. Loki (the kitten and not his brother) yells at him as he closes the door. A most forceful cat, Thor thinks, and feels as though his chest will burst with affection.

Steve greets Thor when he arrives and gives him more details. “Friday was disabled sometime last night, she estimates about fifteen hours ago. We didn’t realize she was offline until there was an emergency reboot of the tower systems. She can’t find Tony anywhere, which should be impossible as long as Tony is on earth.”

They arrive at the conference room where Rhodey and Pepper are making a list of every potential enemy that Stark might have. The list is daunting and Thor is impressed by Tony’s industriousness at making enemies—it rivals his own proclivity to cultivate sworn enemies, and Thor has a nearly two thousand year head start. Wanda is searching the tower with scarlet tendrils for any trace of what might have happened to Tony; Friday is insistent that Tony is nowhere on Earth, so the unspoken assumption is magic.

The even more unspoken assumption is “Loki”, and Thor knows they refrain from speaking this suspicion out loud in order to appease him. He is unreasonable when it comes to his brother and at times it makes him feel rather ashamed. Loki terrorized this world, and yet Thor cannot…

 

Wanda yelps a little and the magic recedes back into her body.

“What did you find?” Steve asks, hurrying over to her side to make sure she’s alright.

“Magic, in the lab. Dark magic. Loki’s magic,” Wanda says, looking over at Thor with an apology in her eyes.

Thor nods, disappointed and not surprised. “Stark made him angrier than usual during our battle. Loki was incensed enough to destroy part of the suit.”

“I mean, that’s not unusual,” says Sam, uncharitably in Thor’s opinion.

“These days my brother is more prone to mischief than violence. Surely you have all noted that you bear no wounds after these skirmishes, and neither does your city. For nigh on a year Loki has done no more than commit a few petty thefts and inflict some mild havoc.” Thor looks around with wide, pleading eyes.

Steve frowns in silent consideration, Wanda looks dubious, Pepper and Rhodey aren’t paying attention as they are still bent to their task, and Sam is pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration.

“If Natasha were here she’d agree with me,” Thor says, sullenly.

“No, Natasha has a weird ‘friends close, enemies closer’ thing going on,” Sam clarifies. “She wants your brother in custody as much as we do, even if her idea of custody is slightly different than what I have.”

“I think her idea is the one with the most merit,” Thor says, folding his arms and glaring. “If my brother were to make reparations it would be a bigger boon to your world than if he were to sit, rotting in chains.”

“He’s not even sorry,” Steve says, reasonably. “How do we know he won’t do it again?”

And ah, there’s the rub.

“No, he is not repentant,” Thor admits, closing his eyes in sorrow. “He will never be trustworthy entirely. But there is no jail in your world that can hold him, and in his own devious way he has paid his debts to Asgard, even by my father’s reckoning. They will not hold him for you.”

“God, it must be nice to get away with murder and not even serve a full sentence,” Sam says, shaking his head in disgust. “What’s that like? Is it nice? I bet it’s nice.”

Thor has nothing to say to this, because there is no protest he can make without sounding insane.

‘But he’s my brother,’ is selfish.

But he has suffered, more than you could ever know,’ is meaningless.

“Sir has returned to the tower,” Friday announces.

They all fall silent and turn to watch with anticipatory unease as the elevator ascends, dinging gently as it opens. Tony stumbles out, looking… thinner, but otherwise unharmed. “I’m back?” he says into the silence.

As one they rush forward to embrace him.

“So worried--” Steve says, hugging Tony to his chest.

“I had no idea how to get you back,” Wanda cries.

“Get out of my way,” Rhodey shouts, pushing Steve away so he can hug Tony instead. Tony, for his part, looks like he is enjoying the attention immensely.

Thor is pleased that Tony is back, but is burning with questions about his time with Loki. He forces himself to remain silent. Tony meets his gaze across the room and winks knowingly.

“What happened?” says Pepper, vibrating with agitation.

“Right, okay. Real quick summary. I pissed Loki off by destroying the manuscript he stole two weeks ago--”

“You mean yesterday?” Steve asks, looking a little confused.

“Huh? No, two weeks… wait. Is there some time-fuckery going on? How long have I been gone?” Tony asks Friday.

“Approximately fifteen hours, sir,” Friday says.

“Oh that little… it was two weeks for me. Anyway, not going to think about physics or time right now, gonna press on. I destroyed Loki’s manuscript when I blasted him, so he showed up to demand reparations. Bound me by some magical agreement and forced me to build him an arc reactor, yadda yad--”

“No, not yadda yadda,” Steve says, shaking his head quickly. “You built him an arc reactor?”

“I had to, the oath bind made it impossible to refuse,” Tony says. There is a lethal anger in his tone, and Thor winces. Loki knows not what hell he has brought upon his shoulders. “I’ll find a way to destroy it though. So yeah, made him an arc reactor, then the oath bind was finished and he dropped me back here.”

“And that’s all that happened?” Pepper asks, looking at his haggard form pointedly.

“Well… I kinda went on a hunger strike. Didn’t want a whole underworld-Hades-and-Persephone-forced marriage thing going on.”

Thor frowns. “I am confused. What does that mean?”

“He kinda took me to hell, big guy. Didn’t want to get stuck there by eating magic food,” Tony says.

“Get stuck…” Thor says.

Tony shrugs, looking a little frustrated. “Yeah, like the myth of Persephone? Eats some food, forced to stay there for six months every year. I wasn’t gonna take that chance. That and I wasn’t sure Loki wouldn’t poison me.”

Thor is insulted by the assumption that Loki would harm a guest in his home, but bites his tongue. Instead, he focuses on the other part of the story. “I know of no magic that could bind you to that land in the way that you have described. It is not likely you should ever return, but so you know, your hunger strike was unnecessary. My brother would never harm a guest, nor allow harm to come to a guest. Beyond that, it would have been foolish to poison you before you completed your task.”

“Huh, you got a point there…” Tony says, frowning a little.

Tony goes off with Steve to make an official report of his time with Loki, but Thor cannot bear to hear any more of his brother’s misdeeds. Instead, he lounges in the common room and plays with his phone, re-watching videos that he took of his cats. They soothe his aching heart. Maybe he cannot take care of his brother, but he can care for his troop of furry miscreants.

Later in the evening the team celebrates Tony’s return with a hearty feast of pizza and the piss-light beer that Thor can barely tolerate. He does tolerate it though, with good grace, because he would never insult his host.

The way Tony probably insulted Loki. Tony is hardly a gracious man, even to his friends. Stark has no idea how lucky he is that Loki is so steadfast in the rules of hospitality, otherwise Tony would likely be dead in a ditch somewhere. Loki is unpredictable in many ways, and changes like the wind, but always he abides by the rules of hospitality which were ingrained in both of them by their mother. Neither of them would disrespect her memory by abandoning those principles.

Tony eventually approaches him, as Thor knew he would. They walk outside together to share the night air.

“This is really nice. Everyone’s treatin’ me special. I should get kidnapped by your brother more often,” Tony says.

“Do not tempt the Norns,” Thor says, amused despite himself.

“He was nicer than I thought he’d be,” Tony admits. “You know, apart from the kidnapping and the being forced to build him something that could be used as a weapon later on, he was pretty decent.”

Thor smiles sadly. “That is the tragedy of my brother. He is… charismatic, and funny. Polite almost to the point of insanity, especially if one is a guest in his home. But should he feel wronged, then the punishments he metes out are always disproportionate to the crimes. However, when all is right in his world, he is… nice. He can be good.” Thor doesn’t often speak of his brother. Partly because it is a painful subject, partly out of respect for his teammates who have been harmed by Loki’s maliciousness, and partly because he doesn’t want to accidentally give away any of Loki’s secrets.

But Tony doesn’t seem to wish revenge upon Loki and Thor finds he wishes to continue speaking of his brother. He just wants one person to understand. “My brother has always been a haunted soul. Perhaps it is his nature as a shape changer, to ever be in search of an identity, or perhaps it is simply how he is. I know not. What I know is that in all of the lifetimes I have known him, I have never known him. I have only known what he wanted me to know, or seen what he wanted me to see.

At least, that is how I felt in the past. These days I wonder if maybe we, each of us, were responsible for creating him. If instead we forced his identities onto him. We shaped him with our gazes and he was helpless to resist twisting into the shapes that were expected. Tormentor, hopeless second son, argr sorcerer, monster. He looked to us for a mirror and we showed him what to be.”

Tony bites his lip and thinks before responding. “When we’re young perhaps that’s an excuse. But he’s not young anymore, Thor. At a certain point we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions.”

“I wonder if it is so simple,” Thor says, smiling sadly.

Tony makes a thoughtful noise. “Anyway, I… I didn’t tell the others this, because I don’t know what to make of it yet, but Loki made modifications to the arc reactor.”

Thor raises his eyebrows. “Indeed?”

“He wanted a different core. Had me use this metal that I’ve never seen before. I, uh… took a little bit when he wasn’t looking. I tried to analyze it, but Friday doesn’t recognize it. I was hoping maybe you’d take a look, see if you know what it is.” Tony hands Thor a vial with a sliver of dull metal inside.

Thor inhales deeply, dread suffusing his blood. “It is uru.”

“The stuff Mjolnir is made out of?” Tony asks, taking the vial back and looking at it with new eyes.

“Aye. It is highly enchantable, and the most durable substance in the universe if it is treated in the correct ways. It is unlikely that you will be able to destroy what you have built for my brother, even if you were to receive the chance.” Thor places a hand on Tony’s shoulder as comfort. Tony is likely to take this news to heart and feel guilty, and Thor aches for his friend.

“Well, this is… this is not good, is it?” Tony asks, tucking the vial away. His expression is closed off, but he does not step away from Thor’s hand.

Thor may not know the heart of his brother, but still, it is Loki. Where Loki goes, disaster follows.

“No, it is likely to be quite bad.”

 

Chapter Text

Yes, I see. Look here! What' s the point of play-acting, trying to throw dust in

each other's eyes? We're all tarred with the same brush.” - Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

Life returns to the chaos that Tony thinks of as “normal”. There are bad guys to fight, things to invent, and crazy impulses to indulge, and so the months pass.

He thinks of Loki frequently, but the memories of the weeks they spent together in that strange house are hazy, as though they came from some dream. Loki disappears, so Tony does his best to pretend like everything is fine. Thor tries to help Tony come up with some ideas as to how Loki might use an uru based arc reactor, but after a while they stop, because all of the possibilities are terrifying. So far they are the only ones who know. They both decide to, uh, keep it that way for now.

Tony’s curiosity eventually inspires him to research Loki, or at least the Midgardian myths about him. By far the best thing that Tony’s read is the Lokasenna, which goes a little something like this:

 

Loki's Big Night Out

Loki: Here I am at this boring party with all these assholes I hate, I’m fucking wasted, no one’s paying attention to me, and there’s no drama. What a fucking waste of a night out [stabs a servant who’s getting all the attention]. Fuck you for getting more attention than me.

Everyone else: GTFO you asshole, so we can keep drinking in peace.

Loki: Fine, whatever, this party blows.

20 minutes later…

Loki: Hey guys, can I come back in?

Bragi: We told you to fuck off you servant stabbing prick.

Loki: Odin, come on man. We’re fucking bros, right?

Odin: Sorry everyone, bro code.

Loki sits down.

Loki: Hey, thanks for giving me a second chance everyone. You’re all great, except that fucker over there [points at Bragi]. I hate you.

Bragi: Please, please don’t start shit in Gymir’s house. I’ll give you a horse. Uh, and a sword. Here, I’ll throw in a fucking ring as well, just please stop being a douche-canoe.

Loki does not stop.

Loki: I can't believe you think you can buy me off; a) it won't work, and b) you're fucking poor. Also, you’re a fucking coward and you can’t aim for shit.

Bragi: I’d fucking kill you except I don’t want to ruin the party.

Loki: Let’s fucking step outside, bitch.

Idunn: Come on guys, quit it. Just leave each other alone.

Loki: [under his breath] Slut says what?

Idunn: What?

Loki: Ah-fucking-ha!

Gefjan: Dude.

Loki: How many dicks did you have to suck to get that sweet necklace you’re wearing?

Odin: Dude, don’t piss her off you idiot.

Loki: I’m not stupid, you are.

Odin: I may be stupid, but at least I didn’t spend eight years dressed as a milk maid, milking cows in caves, and giving birth, you fuckin’ girl.

Loki: [under his breath] Drag queen says what?

Odin: What?

Frigga: You’re both idiots, but let’s put it aside and just enjoy the party.

Loki: Odin, did you know your wife was a slut? Slut slut slut slut slut.

Frigga: I wish my son Baldr were here. He’d kick your fucking ass.

Loki: I killed Baldr. Uh… oops, did I say that out loud?

Freyja: Dude, I can’t believe you just confessed to murder.

Loki: You a mega-ho, Freyja.

Freyja: You’re a god damned liar. You better fucking watch your back walking home tonight.

Loki: A gassy, incestuous ho. Farted right on your brother’s dick. Saw it with my own two eyes.

Njorth: So what if they’re all sluts? You’re still a freak.

Loki: Why are you even here, you piss drinking poster boy for Stockholm-syndrome?

Njorth: Maybe I’ve got Stockholm-syndrome, but I got a son out of this whole situation, and he’s a better man than you.

Loki: Uh… the son you had with your sister? Yeah, muuuuch better than me.

Tyr: Stop talking shit about Freyr, he’s a good guy.

Loki: Shut up you friendless dick. Or should I say handless? Cause my son Fenrir totally used your hand as a chew toy.

Tyr: I lost a hand, but you lost a son.

Loki: It’s okay, I got another son, ‘cause I fucked your wife. Thanks for raisin’ my kid, chump.

Freyr: I bet you really want to see Fenrir again. How about we put you in the same cell?

Loki: You sold your sword to buy a wife. You probably should have kept the sword, you fucking coward.

Byggvir: If I were as mighty as Freyr I’d fucking kick your ass.

Loki: Uh, who the fuck is this butt-sniffer?

Byggvir: Dude, come on, I keep telling you my name is Byggvir. I’m, like, a really big deal?

Loki: Shut the fuck up, Byggvir. Big deal? Must be because you eat so much. Can’t be anything else, since we can never fucking find you when it’s time to fight.

Heimdall: You’re fucking wasted Loki. Come on, let’s stop this before something happens that we all regret.

Loki: Bet you won’t regret it more than you regret agreeing to take the shittiest job in the world. What did you do to deserve eternal gate-keeping duty?

Skathi: You’re having a lot of fuckin’ fun now, but you’re gonna regret all this shit when we tie you to a rock with your dead son’s intestines.

Loki: Fuckin’ do it. I fuckin’ killed your dad, ice queen.

Skathi: I’ll show you fucking cold, you son of a bitch.

Loki: You say cold, but remember that time I fucked you? You were pretty warm then.

Sif: Here Loki, have some wine, and uh… we’re good right? No need to, uh, bring up anything about me, since I’ve done nothing wrong?

Loki: Mm, nice wine. Also, we totally fucked, you huge, cheatin’-on-Thor sluuuuuut—

Thor is heard shouting in the distance.

Beyla: Ooooh, Thor is gonna kick your ass.

Loki:  . . . and Beyla was the biggest slut of them all.

Thor shows up with the hammer, Loki starts to regret his life decisions.

Thor: I’mma fuck you up with this hammer, you little shit.

Loki: You’re really overreacting, guy.

Thor: Hammer. Fuck you up.

Loki: Coward.

Thor: Hammer.

Loki: Idiot.

Thor: Hammer.

Loki: I see your point. To the assembled bitches and hos, I bid my adieu. Remember my sick burns, you fucks, the next time you even think of letting Gymir throw a party. His parties are lame and I won’t tolerate it.

Loki runs away really quickly and hides in a waterfall, pretending to be a salmon. No one falls for it. They catch him, tie him to a rock with his son’s intestines, and put a venomous snake over his face for good measure. No one learns anything, especially not Loki.

The end.

Like, some of it has to be embellishment (fuck, please let the kid-intestines part be embellishment) but Tony hopes and prays that Loki really did read the gods to filth in an epic prose battle. Like that scene from 8 Mile, but more Shakespearean.

His second favorite story is the one where Loki comes up with a brilliant plan to get Thor’s hammer back from Trym.

“Did you really let Loki dress you up as a pretty bride to get your hammer back from a troll?” Tony asks Thor one night on a drunken whim. He looks over at the clock and realizes he’s called Thor past midnight, but Thor doesn’t sound like he was asleep.

“Where… where did you hear that?” Thor asks, sounding strained.

Jackpot, Tony thinks, smiling a mischievous smile worthy of Loki himself. “Just reading some old myths about you and your Bro-seph Stalin. Interesting stuff. Especially the epic bitch-fit he threw at Gymir’s party. Is any of it true?”

Thor is silent on the other end for a few moments and then he says in a voice that is too calm “Stark, you are my friend and brother in arms, but I have before killed men who spoke so blithely of that night as you do now. Hold your tongue, lest I find a home for my boot in your darkest passage.”

“Ah… Got it. But seriously, if these myths are even half true then Loki’s amazing. That guy gives no fucks. He’s a total badass,” Tony says, flopping down onto his bed in a loose-limbed sprawl. “He’s not bad in the looks department either. If I wasn’t certain he’d kill me for even suggesting it, I’d ask your permission to court him.”

Thor sighs. “Your death wish is mighty tonight, Tony Stark.”

“Do you think he likes me?” Tony asks, closing his eyes and wiggling around a little until he finds a comfortable position.

“You sound like a young maiden in love, Stark. It’s… distressing.” But Thor sounds amused, so Tony doesn't feel too self conscious.

“Yeah, whatever, whatever. But seriously, do you think he likes me?” It’s not that Tony has anything even approaching a ‘thing’ for Loki, but… that train of thought derails at the station.

Thor chuckles. “I have not been privy to my brother’s romantic entanglements for many an age now, even when he still sought my counsel in any matters of real importance to him. I’m afraid I have no idea if my brother finds you desirable. I think it unlikely, though. You are his enemy and far too disrespectful, and he does not deal well with your Midgardian ‘sass’.”

“Everyone likes me. I’m…” Tony yawns. “I’m sexy as hell. I’ve even seen you checkin’ me out, big guy. I’d let you tap this, if you wanted to. I’m generous like that.”

“You have caught me, Stark. I do indeed desire you.  I shall come to your abode now and ‘tap’ that. Tap it into the ground with my hammer.”

Tony snorts. “I know you meant that to sound like a big threat--”

“Yes, yes. I heard it as soon as I said it, Stark. Now, I need to finish trimming the nails of my cats. I shall say goodnight to you, and endeavor not to mock you terribly for tonight’s indiscretions if you promise to never mention the bride story to Clint.”

“Yeah, I can agree to that,” says Tony easily.

“And as a word of advice, never mention to Loki the story of that night at Gymir’s. He would be well within his rights to disembowel you, and I would not suffer to help you. I might be convinced to help him, though.”

Thor hangs up without saying goodnight and Tony shudders. Blondie’s just as scary as Crazy Eyes, he thinks before passing out.

In the morning (well, morning to Tony, which is 5pm—it’s still bright outside though, so it counts if you squint) Tony nurses a hangover in the workshop with a mug of coffee and thinks about the night before. He feels embarrassed, which is unusual. More importantly, he does not have feelings for Loki. He does not even like Loki, so why did he gush about him to Thor like... like a young maiden in love? 

As though summoned by Tony’s poor life decisions, Loki decides to teleport into his workshop at that moment.

“Whoa jesus,” Tony says, throwing his mug at the sudden swirl of green and gold magic before he can think better of it.

Loki moves aside, letting the mug and the coffee fall to the floor with a crash and a splat respectively. He watches with interest as DUM-E hurries forward to clean up the mess but only succeeds in grinding the mug into smaller pieces beneath its wheels.  “Why would you make this contraption? Is it supposed to be doing this? The mess is worse than it was before!”

Tony grits his teeth and calls DUM-E off. No one gets to insult his inventions except himself. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve come to claim the time you owe me,” Loki says nonchalantly, although there is a glimmer in his eye.

“The fuck you talkin’ about,” says Tony, backing up to the bench.

“A month for every bite, you said. I counted six, so you owe me six months.”

“I didn’t eat any pomegranates,” Tony says, shaking a finger.

“No, you ate a cheeseburger. Now, enough stalling. We are leaving,” Loki says, striding forward purposefully.

“So what if I ate the cheeseburger?” Tony shouts, throwing a wrench at Loki’s head. The bastard dodges it easily as he stalks closer. “That doesn’t mean I belong to you!”

“Oh, not to me,” Loki says lowly, a smile like honey slowly spreading its way across his face. “But with me? Surely you’ve heard of Persephone.”

“A cheeseburger isn’t some fucking mystical pomegranate, you smirking lunatic.” It isn’t, it just isn’t. Not even close. "You aren't even Greek!" he adds, throwing another wrench which is dodged just as easily.

Loki spreads his hands wide, posing like the showman he is. “I think you’ll find that a pomegranate symbolizes the fruit of the dead. Your cheeseburger, made of dead flesh, was topped with fruit. It’s close enough for the symbolism to bind.”

“Ah-hah! There’s no fucking fruit on a cheeseburger,” Tony says triumphantly, finger pointing accusingly at Loki. “I fucking win, no going back to crazy town with you. I stay here in my workshop, and you fucking leave before I call the Avengers.”

“Oh Stark,” Loki murmurs, almost affectionately. “A tomato is a berry, you ignorant fool.”

“Well shit,” says Stark, before the darkness claims him. The last thing he sees are the whites of Loki’s eyes gleaming with triumph and a smile like a knife, suddenly too close, arms wrapping around him.

Then he is gone.

Chapter Text

There's no more hope— but it's still "before." We haven't yet begun to suffer.”- Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

When Loki steps back they are once again in the clearing in Hel, and Tony is furious. “We never shook on it! You have no claim! Take me back, now!”

Loki looks smug. “We didn’t need to shake on it. When you swore to give me a month for every bite of dead flesh and fruit you took, did you not feel the bind? Such a simple mischief, Stark. I never would have thought of such a thing until you placed the idea in my head. What a strange little creature you are.”

“You absolute fuck!”

Tony darts forward to punch Loki, uncaring for his life or safety. Loki steps out of the way and trips Tony in a move that’s graceful, practiced, and lazy. “Really? You’d strike me? Is it such a crime to hold you to your word?”

Tony looks up at Loki and growls, which makes Loki smile brightly.

“Come, come Stark. Six months is not so long, really.” Loki starts walking, and Tony groans before getting up to follow.

Tony walks in sullen silence, but as they enter the comfortable cabin that is soon to be his prison, Tony can’t hold his tongue. “Why’d you even want me here? Are you going to force me to build another weapon for you?”

“I never forced you to build a weapon. You agreed to build me a power source as reparation, and no. I need nothing more from you in that regard, the arc reactor is more than enough to please me,” Loki says, ushering Tony into the small kitchen. “I was going to make your Midgardian lasagna for our evening meal. Does that sound pleasant to you?”

“Oh, right. Tomato is a fruit, remember? You think I’m stupid enough to fall for that again?” Tony asks angrily.

Loki chuckles and grabs Tony’s hand, tugging him dangerously close. “I shall not bind you to me a second time, regardless of what you may eat,” he says solemnly, looking into Tony’s eyes with an intimacy that itches, and the oath wraps around both their bones. “Six months is enough. I need no more.”

“Enough for what? “ Tony asks, dreading the answer. “Enough time for what, Loki?”

“Oh, six months is plenty of time for many things. It is enough time for the seasons to change, enough to conquer a world, enough to destroy one. So many things I could do in six months without you there to thwart me with the Avengers. Please chop the garlic,” Loki says, passing Tony a knife.

“You sure you want to hand me a sharp implement while you’re threatening my world?” Tony asks, taking the knife and staring at Loki.

“Please, continue trying to intimidate me. I find it titillating.” Loki winks at him before turning to fill a large pot with water.

Tony shudders, mostly with anger. “Why am I here?” he asks, darting forward to grab Loki from behind, yanking his long hair back with one hand and pressing the knife against Loki’s throat with the other. Loki makes a sound of surprise, echoing the surprise that Tony feels for actually pulling that move off. He should be too short, and Loki should be too… skilled.

Loki swallows and the motion against the sharp edge leaves a thin cut on the thin skin, which starts bleeding lazily. “I will tell you this much, Stark. But for the manners I learned at my mother’s knee, you would find that knife buried in your eye socket. Now, clean the blade and continue chopping the garlic.”

Loki’s calm is more terrifying than his rage, and Tony has enough survival instinct to do as he is asked. He releases Loki, who wipes away the blood and shakes his head a little until his hair lays the way he wants it. Tony cleans the blade and starts chopping the garlic.

“Your brother was right about you being hospitable to the point of insanity,” Tony says, placing the chopped garlic in a little bowl and passing it to Loki. “I’m surprised I’m not a stain on your floor right now.”

“Ah, my beloved brother is sharing my secrets again, is he? How delightful.” Loki does not actually sound delighted by this information. He sounds bitter. “Here, mix the garlic, the spinach, and this egg into the ricotta.”

“He never shares anything about you really. Fury keeps asking for stuff, but Thor refuses. He only told me because I told him… “Tony realizes he’s about to admit that he finds Loki interesting, and that he spent last night saying some stuff to Thor that could be very damning out of context. “Never mind.”

“What did you tell him?” Loki asks. Tony remains silent, diligently mixing the ingredients, and Loki invades his space, poking at his side with long, insistent fingers. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.”

But no matter how Loki pokes and whines, Tony remains silent. Eventually Loki has to return to the pan to prevent the ground sausage from burning, but Tony can feel curiosity like heat from a flame wicking off Loki.

They finish making the lasagna in near total silence, broken only by Loki giving periodic instructions. When it is in the oven they sit at the table to wait, regarding each other with bitter suspicion (Tony) and amusement (Loki).

“Why am I here?” Tony asks, trying again to get a straight answer, knowing he won’t.

Loki taps his chin thoughtfully, staring up at the ceiling as though trying to divine the answer from the lines in the plaster. “You are here because I’ve always wanted a pet. My brother has cats and I decided I wanted one of my own.”

“I thought I was an ant, not a cat,” Tony says, raising an eyebrow.

“I thought you were a human,” Loki says, eyes sparkling with mischief.

Tony can’t help it, he starts laughing. “God, if you weren’t such a scary, evil bastard I might actually like you.”

Loki smiles in what looks to be genuine pleasure, but says nothing.

When the lasagna is ready, Loki serves it on Royal Albert Old Country Roses china which is just one more odd thing on the growing pile of weird that is this whole bullshit situation. Then he retrieves two glasses and a bottle of red wine. It is the most amazing wine Tony’s ever tasted. It’s like drinking an autumn afternoon and it pairs perfectly with the tang of the tomato sauce.

All told it’s the best meal he’s ever had during a kidnapping and he says so.

“This is the best meal I’ve ever had during a kidnapping.”

“Cheers,” says Loki, dryly. “Although, technically it is not a kidnapping.”

“Oh, please, tell me how this isn’t a kidnapping,” Tony says, pointing a fork at Loki.

Loki smiles, taking a sip of his wine before speaking. “I must remind you yet again that you swore to spend a month at my side for every bite of cheese burger you consumed.”

“We never specified cheeseburger,” Tony protests.

Loki closes his eyes like a pleased cat, lip pressed against the edge of his wine glass and looking entirely too relaxed.  “No, you said ‘dead flesh and fruit’, which was delightfully vague. It was like you wanted me to kidnap you.”

“Oh, I thought this wasn’t a kidnapping,” Tony says with a sneer.

“Good, we are in agreement then, that this is not a kidnapping.” Loki smirks into his wine glass.

Tricksy bastard.

Loki pours them both another glass of wine. “I did read up on your Persephone myth. You were wrong, of course, the pomegranate was not symbolic of the dead.  I have no idea how you arrived at that particular conclusion. Instead it seems to be symbolic of marriage and fertility.”

Tony chokes a little. “Why are we talking about this still? I get it, I’m an idiot and I should have paid better attention in, uh, myth class. Or whatever.”

“And after reading that myth, I read a few other Midgardian tales,” Loki says, ignoring Tony. “It’s interesting how frequently fruit, the offering or consumption of, can be read as a metaphor for sex.”

The word “sex” in Loki’s mouth does things to Tony’s insides. “Uh…”

“Would you care for dessert?” Loki says, clearing their plates from the table and bringing them to the sink. “I was thinking strawberries and whipped cream.”

Tony, a veteran playboy, completely comfortable with his libido, turns bright red. He chugs the last of his wine and tries to speak with an even tone of voice. “Are you trying to seduce me?”

Loki turns back and regards Tony with an expression of shocked innocence. “I would never try to seduce you. I find bestiality repugnant.” Then Loki smirks and turns back to the dishes.

Ooh, built up and slapped down. Tony thinks he knows this game.

He stares thoughtfully at Loki and says “I’m a genius in most areas, but I admit I suck at remembering mythology. However, even I remember one story about you that indicates you didn’t always have an issue with bestiality.” He smirks when Loki’s shoulders hunch in irritation, but the god remains silent as he scrubs the plates. “Anyway, I’m gonna skip dessert tonight. My room still the same one as last time?”

Loki turns around, expression suddenly pensive. “Yes. Goodnight, Stark.”

After dressing for bed and curling up under the covers, Tony lies awake, haunted by something that sits on the edge of realization.

Six months. Enough time for what?

Tony goes over every conversation he’s ever had with Loki, any insult that he might have flung Loki’s way. Usually Tony makes taunts about the god’s sexual prowess, ever since their encounter in the tower, because it gets the biggest reaction. It’s a big red button screaming “hit me repeatedly” and Tony loves big red buttons.

Loki’s punishments are always disproportionate to the crime.

A reasonable man would just hit Tony back. Make a stab about how Tony couldn’t make it work with Pepper, or a crack about how he’ll sleep with anything. Fire against fire. But Loki is twisted up inside, feral, vindictive. How would a crazy god of chaos claim revenge for these slights?

Tony’s mind keeps cycling back to how the word ‘sex’ sounded in Loki’s mouth, about the incredibly unsubtle offer of strawberries, and he knows somehow that this is exactly what Loki wants him to be thinking about.

There's no way...

Last time Tony had no problem sleeping under Loki's roof. He was there for a purpose he understood (and resented, but at least he understood). His purpose now is unclear, and sleep eludes him as he tries to understand the trickster god. It is, of course, a foolish enterprise.

Chapter Text

Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes— as he is doing— and refused to look at you, all that loveliness of yours would be wasted on the desert air. No, don't be afraid, I can't help looking at you. I shan't turn my eyes away. And I'll be nice to you, ever so nice. Only you must be nice to me, too." -Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

“So we’re really gonna do this?” Tony asks as Loki places a plate of waffles in front of him.

“Yes, we will eat waffles. They are delightful,” Loki says, turning back to the counter to grab his own plate. Both stacks are topped with whipped cream and strawberries.

Tony stares at the strawberries and tries not to blush. “No, I mean… you’re actually going to keep me here for six months? I kinda hoped this was just you proving a point, playing a prank, and I’d wake up in my own bed.”

“Oh, well, yes,” says Loki, stuffing a large bite of waffles, strawberries and cream into his mouth. It is not graceful, sexy, or beautiful the way Loki eats waffles. There is a bit of whipped cream at the corner of his mouth that he is unaware of, and Tony feels his eye twitch involuntarily. “You owe me,” Loki says through a mouthful of waffles. Before now Tony has never seen any resemblance between Thor and Loki (adoption explains most of that) but in this moment, as Loki hacks and slashes his way greedily through breakfast, the similarities emerge at last.

Fucking space Vikings.

“What the hell am I going to do for six months? It’s day one and I already feel bored!” Tony cries, pushing the waffles away and thunking his head onto the table in frustration. Loki reaches for his plate of waffles and Tony grips his fork and slashes it downwards in warning. “I’m gonna eat them, back off.”

Loki grumbles and withdraws his hand, but addresses Tony’s complaint with good humor. “I promise you shall find entertainment soon enough. These six months you shall remain at my side, and I am, as you are aware, incredibly exciting.”

“Yeah, exciting like a forest fire,” Tony says darkly.

“A compliment, I’m sure.”

Tony sits up and points a finger at Loki. “I’m not helping you commit crimes.”

Loki rolls his eyes like Tony is the crazy one. “I would never dream of asking you to. I do a great many things besides commit ingenious and terrible crimes. I also collect stamps, and sometimes I may bird watch if the mood strikes me.”

“You’re fucking with me,” says Tony, squinting at Loki in suspicion.

“Yes of course I’m fucking with you. Have you met me?”

Which, good point.

“Eat your waffles. I’ll not have you complaining about hunger an hour into my quest to relieve you of your boredom.”

Tony finishes his waffles under the disinterested and impatient gaze of Loki, and then they set off, donning shoes and coat, boots and leathers.

“Where we going?” Tony asks, actually interested despite himself.

“I’ve been practicing my culinary talents. I should like to be a chef today,” Loki says. Before Tony can register what that means, they are caught in a swirl of gold and green, and swept away.

When the glitter tornado recedes, they are standing in the midst of a busy kitchen, apparently invisible.

“Wh-ha-hat the fuck?” Tony groans.

“As I said, I wish to be a chef today, and you shall suit as my sous chef.” Loki makes this sound like it’s very reasonable, and Tony almost goes with it, except--

“I don’t know how to do that?”

“And I don’t really know how to cook anything more complex than lasagna without magic, but I shall be attempting it today! We shall both learn something new. What a wonderful thing,” Loki says with a pleased smile. He clicks his fingers, and suddenly they are in different clothes and faces. Loki is a large beefy man with a hard face and sandy hair, and Tony is a skinny red headed boy.

“Fucking trippy,” Tony says, fascinated by the transformation. “How are you doing this?”

“Magic, obviously,” Loki sighs. “Come, the lunch rush is about to begin and we must be at our stations.”

Tony has no fucking idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but everyone suddenly wants him to look at their plates and he has to make judgement calls about whether stuff is good to go or not. After a while he starts getting into it, changing up the plating of certain dishes to be more aesthetically pleasing (he hopes). No one really questions him and he isn’t hearing any complaints.

Loki is wearing his giant hat and looking incredibly pleased with himself, and Tony can’t tell if he’s good at what he’s doing or if he just looks like he’s good at what he’s doing. But then dishes start coming back.

“Not enough salt.”

“Undercooked.”

“Tastes like rubber.”

Loki takes it all in stride, nodding as they let him know his food sucks, which is so weird. Tony’s expecting Loki to blow up the restaurant, but instead he adjusts his methods, and… the dishes stop coming back. He adjusts again and complements start being delivered instead.

Tony, meanwhile, still has no idea what he’s doing, but it all seems to be happening anyway despite him, and it’s a strange sort of lesson. He’s not sure what he’s learning, exactly, but it’s something profound and lonely, and he’s not certain he’s grateful to Loki for exposing him to this.

Eventually the evening comes and their shift ends. They fade away from that place, back into the forest clearing.

“A most enlightening day,” Loki says with the sort of satisfaction he usually reserves for killing lots of people, or blowing up important monuments.

And this is a lesson about Loki, Tony thinks, but he has to make sure. “Is being a villain a game to you, like this was? Just something you’re trying on like it’s a costume?”

But Loki doesn’t answer or even look at Tony as they walk back to the house.

They eat leftovers at the table in silence. Tony wants to be disturbed by how comfortable it is, how domestic it is to be sitting with an evil wizard, eating cold lasagna. Surely, if he was a real good guy, like Steve, he’d be more upset right now. He would have tried to run away during today’s stunt, or tried to sneak a message out in the crème brulee. He did none of that. He should probably be ashamed of himself, or worried about Stockholm syndrome, but all he feels is an intense curiosity.

“I trust you found today a decent distraction?” Loki asks, licking his fork clean of the remnants of his meal. That tongue…

“Eh,” says Tony, shrugging with feigned nonchalance. He could take or leave the sous chef thing, but it was very entertaining watching Loki. “I was distracted, I guess. Didn’t really enjoy it all that much though. What was the point of today?”

Loki blinks, apparently taken aback. “Point? The point was that I wanted to do something, so I did it. What point is needed beyond that?”

“Why am I here?” Tony asks desperately, leaning forward, begging Loki to answer finally.

Loki grins. “You are here because I enjoy torturing you.”

And Tony knows that’s a lie, insofar as it’s an answer to his question. While Loki may enjoy torturing Tony, that’s not why he’s facing a six month incarceration with the God of Fucking Weird.

“Someday you’ll tell me the truth,” Tony says, promising Loki.

Loki looks at him with an odd expression. “Perhaps. Though it’s rare that I ever give a straight answer. I’m not sure I know how.”

“Maybe tomorrow we could learn how to be normal people that give straight answers to questions?” Tony asks hopefully.

“Lawyers it is!” cries Loki jubilantly.

Tony cradles his head in his hands. “Please, no.”

Loki stands, taking their plates to the sink to clean them. “I think it would be great fun, Stark. Tomorrow we set out to practice Midgardian law. We will learn so much.”

“You are fucking insane.”

Loki chuckles. “Sanity suited me ill. As did love, friendship, fatherhood, a throne, and anything else I thought I wanted. But fine, we shan’t be lawyers. I’ll decide what I want to be tomorrow.”

And that last sentence is Loki in a nutshell, Tony suspects.

“Okay, fine. I look forward to it,” Tony says. He aims for sarcastic, but it comes out a little too close to genuine. Loki gives him a look and Tony excuses himself to his room for the evening.

These six months are either going to drag by or pass like lightning, and Tony honestly doesn’t know which would be worse. Tony vows not to have fun tomorrow. Just get it over with and move on. Don’t let yourself like Loki. Don’t enjoy this.

It’s not going to be as easy as it should be.

The problem lies in the fact that Tony is a narcissist.  Maybe not a true one, for he hates himself as much as he’s obsessed with himself, but still—he understands the desire to study oneself in a mirror and just let everything else fade away. Perhaps it’s a side effect of growing up invisible. He could never be seen for himself, he was always a shadow of his father, so he fought to become something else, anything else.

He tried being stupid in school, but after he took a beating for getting a C in math, he realized the price for that identity would be too high. He tried being a dissolute lout, falling into drugs and sex as completely as he could, but that made him visible in ways that were not satisfying. He was still a shadow, but a disappointing shadow. Even after his father died (and he loved his father as much as he hated him) he was unable to escape. Only after Obie betrayed him did he try living up to the legacy of hero, and it’s the closest he’s come to becoming visible, but he’s still Howard’s son.

But today, with Loki, Tony escaped for eight hours. No one paid attention to him for any reason other than the job, and he was unexpectedly torn free from decades of anguish. For a day he had a chance to be himself and only himself, and for the first time Tony realized just how much of his personality is dependent on the hooks of expectation that are laid into his skin. He is pulled in many directions by friends, coworkers, the public, and he takes shape in the twisting and writhing, as he tries to find any position that can bring him a moment of peace.

But he can’t feel Loki’s hooks. He doesn’t know what Loki wants, and it feels like free falling. Loki has defenestrated him again, but this time Tony only feels relief.

Tony doesn’t know much about Loki, but he knows intimately the look of someone who grew up a shadow of someone else. Based on the shape if it, Tony assumes it was Thor’s. The hooks in Loki’s flesh have been there for millennia, and what a shape he's twisted himself into.

Loki gave him a gift today and Tony decides he wants to return it. He’s not sure if he can, or how he would even accomplish it, but he’s going to try.

Just get it over with and move on. Don't let yourself like Loki. Don't enjoy this.

It's too late already.

Chapter Text

" I tried to hear, but it wasn't easy. Things on earth move so quickly, you know. Couldn't you have held your tongues? Now it's over, he's stopped talking, and what he thinks of me has gone back into his head." - Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

After a hurried breakfast, Loki speeds them away, disturbingly excited to show Tony what he has planned.

“Uh…” Tony says as the green and gold settle. He blinks around and is shocked that he’s still surprised by anything.

Loki waves a hand around, encompassing the whole scene for Tony. “I thought this would be dissimilar enough from the practice of law to please you. Was I incorrect?” Loki asks.

He doesn’t just ask, though. He leans waaaay too close to Tony and murmurs low in his ear, close enough that Tony can feel the warmth of Loki’s breath. Close enough that Tony can smell him. Loki doesn’t wear cologne, but he smells…

Tony shakes his head and steps away.

“It’s not dissimilar enough? Truly, Stark? I fail to see how selling small, helpless animals to insane children and their idiotic parents is in any way similar to helping rich men avoid their rightful prison sentences.”

“No, that… just, too close to me. Invading my space. Gave me the willies,” Tony babbles, too uncomfortable for anything but honesty.

Loki steps close again, mouth even closer to Tony’s ear, lips almost but not quite touching. “I invade. It’s what I do.”

“Dude, seriously,” Tony yelps. Loki steps away with a smirk and starts walking to the front counter.

“Come, Stark. I think we will learn many things today and I am eager to start.” Loki clicks his fingers and becomes a tiny, round, sweet faced old lady.

He turns Tony into a busty brunette woman. Tony raises his eyebrows and Loki smirks in anticipation. Well, if he thinks Tony’s going to freak out about being a woman, he’s got another thing coming. Tony cocks a hip, jiggling his breasts a little, and blows Loki a seductive kiss. Tony savors Loki’s look of alarm, then turns and walks further into the store to start pretending to work.

It’s a large shop with a wide variety of products for all sorts of animals. Tony knows nothing about animals, though, so when anyone asks him about anything, Tony just says “I just started so I’m not sure, but the woman at the front knows everything.”

He’s hiding out on the cat aisle when a customer taps him on his shoulder. He yelps and spins, and nearly yelps again. It’s Thor.

“I apologize if I startled you. I just… I need some help,” Thor asks, frowning down at his hands. He’s holding two nearly identical cans of cat food. “I’m not sure which is better for my kitten. I’ve tried researching on the internet, but I broke the computer accidentally. I thought it would go faster if I fed the little box more power, but it exploded you see.” Thor blinks up at Tony, a self-deprecating smile on his face. “I sometimes wish computers came in a twelve pack, like Midgardian beers do.”

Tony giggles and Thor joins along. “You’re helpless, aren’t you?” Tony says, smiling fondly.

“In some ways,” Thor says, grinning brightly. “In other areas I’m most competent.” Thor shoots Tony an appreciative and very flirtatious smile and Tony blushes. Shit.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about--” Then he stops. He was just about to send Thor to speak with Loki. Not a good idea at all. “Uh, I don’t know much about either of those brands. Let’s take a look at what else we have, and see if we can figure something out.”

It’s all incomprehensible. The numbers and words on the backs of the cans mean nothing, not even to a genius like Tony. Tony turns to look at Thor, who looks just as bewildered and confused as he does.

“I tried this brand,” Thor says, pointing at a stack of cans. “Loki hated that one, so I’m not going to try it again. These two are the only ones left, but…” he shrugs.

“Loki?” Tony asks, frowning.

“Yes?” Loki says, turning the corner because he has cosmically horrible timing. Loki freezes when he sees Thor.

Thor, who does not recognize his brother (obviously) smiles widely. “Good morning, madam. Your woman here was trying to help me figure out which brand of food to select for my kitten, but we’re both rather confused. Perhaps you can assist?” Thor holds out the two brands of kitten food and Loki takes them, blinking down at them.

“Tell me of your kitten,” Loki says stiffly. “How old? What has he eaten in the past?”

Thor smiles widely. “Loki is nearly seven months old by my reckoning.” Loki startles at the name, but Thor doesn’t notice. “And he eats a brand of kitten food that is no longer in production, unfortunately. He is a proud kitten who favors tradition and is not fond of change.”

“Strange to name him after the ever changing god then, isn’t it?” Loki asks, frowning a little. Thor chuckles.

“I named him Loki because he is fierce in battle, tempestuous, and territorial. The ever-changing one in my household is Hveðrungr. One moment placid, the next buried claw and tooth into my leg.” The fondness on Thor’s face is heartbreaking, but the expression on Loki’s face is worse.

“Fierce in battle?” Loki asks, eyebrows slanted upwards. If Loki really wanted to conquer the world, all he really needs to do is make that face in front of a camera and say 'please' tremulously and everyone will surrender immediately.

“Yes, very, just like my… just like Loki. Although… I realize now that perhaps your people do not appreciate... I apologize,” Thor says, turning red.

Loki shakes his head quickly. “No, no. It’s… I am not offended. Tell me, just how many cats do you have, and did you name them all after your brother?”

Thor smiles gratefully, mortification fading away as he is given a chance to talk once more about his cats. “I have five, and yes, they are all named after my brother. It’s… it’s perhaps not a comparison my brother would understand or appreciate, but ever since I first encountered a cat I felt as though they shared a similar spirit. It’s one small way to honor my brother, though I think he would take offense if he ever knew.”

“Why should he take offense?” Loki asks, cocking his head to the side. That's another face that could get him the planet if he still wanted it. Tony realizes maybe he has a problem. A Loki shaped problem.

“They are described as pets, on this planet. Little life forms to be kept for entertainment and companionship, or to hunt vermin. That is not how I see them, though. They are wild spirits, fey creatures that choose their companions with rigorous care. They are creatures of intention and purpose, although I am frequently at a loss to understand exactly what that purpose is. And they are honorable creatures, although their code abides by no logic that I know. Still, it is a code they live by faithfully. Like my brother.”

Tony wants to cry, or hug Thor, or… he settles for patting Thor on the arm. “You truly love your brother.”

“Aye,” says Thor, miserably. “I wish I didn’t.”

“There is little enough love for your brother, I imagine. Don’t wish to extinguish the only light there may be for him,” Loki says, staring at Thor with an emotion that Tony doesn’t want to untangle.

“You are right, of course,” Thor says, looking ashamed. “I just wish it didn’t hurt so much to love him.”

“You do not resent the cats in your care when they abuse you, do you?” Loki asks, smirking a little.

Thor laughs. “I don't. But then again they are cats and not my brother, who is skilled with words that hurt more than daggers. He is deeper under my skin than they could ever breach, tooth or claw.”

“Have hope for your brother, Thor,” Loki says, placing a can of kitten food in Thor’s hand. “Try that brand. Scent the kitten’s favorite toys with it, place a little bit into his territory, and he will soon associate it with himself. If it does not work, come back.”

“I thank you for your counsel, wise one,” Thor says with a smile. He leaves to purchase the food, leaving Tony and Loki behind.

Loki looks like he’s crumbling apart inside, gazing miserably at the shelves of cat food. “Sentimental fool,” he murmurs, and Tony thinks Loki might be talking about himself.

It’s hella awkward. Tony wants to do something, but he also wants to live to see his next birthday. “Help me navigate this minefield, 'cause I'm bad at this stuff. Do I give you a hug? Do I pretend I didn’t see anything? Do I help you mock Thor so we can pretend that wasn’t pathetically heartbreaking? What do I do here?” Tony asks desperately.

Loki raises an amused eyebrow at Tony. “A hug? Would you truly embrace me, Stark?”

“Maybe, if I didn’t think you’d stab me in the back,” Tony says cautiously.

The mood changes instantly.

“And do you think I’d stab you in the back?” Loki asks quietly, gazing down at the ground so he doesn’t have to meet Tony’s eyes.

Tony decides to read between the lines and steps forward to embrace Loki. “I'm crazy for saying this, but I want to like you despite everything. I want to be your friend. Please don’t stab me in the back.”

Loki is silent and still for a few moments, and then Tony feels him return the embrace. “Don’t turn your back on me and I won’t feel the urge to stab it,” Loki whispers.

Tony steps back and looks down at Loki’s borrowed face. “Don’t make me want to turn my back and I won’t turn it,” Tony says, raising an eyebrow.

Loki smirks. “If you want to be my friend, Tony, you should first accept the fact that I am frequently hateful, I am never straightforward, and above all I am a liar. You will turn your back on me, just like everyone else.”

Tony blinks. “Was that a gauntlet? That feels like it was a gauntlet. Did you just throw a gauntlet at me?”

“If I did?” Loki asks.

Tony laughs a little. “Fine, I accept the challenge. I’ll be your friend, despite you, you little shit. Just you watch, I’ll be the best friend you’ve ever had.”

“Then you’ll have been the only friend I’ve ever had,” Loki says with a small smile. It’s… not a joke. Tony knows it isn’t. Fuck. Tony’s brain scrambles, trying to figure out what to say, but Loki interrupts his thoughts. “According to the weekly schedule we must feed the snakes today. Come, I require your assistance.”

Loki prepares the meals for the snakes and Tony is relieved to discover that everything is already pre-killed. It’s still disturbing, but Loki handles all of it. Really Tony is just there to open the enclosures. Tony finds anything to do with animals gross and upsetting, but Loki smiles gently at each of the snakes, cooing gently as they eat.

“Good strike, little one,” Loki says as a tiny snake gobbles its tiny mouse. It looks like a sock puppet while it eats, kind of.

“You like snakes?” Tony asks as they move on to the next enclosure.

“Aye. They are sweet creatures. Gentle, curious, quiet. Their needs are simple. Peace, warmth, an engaging environment,” Loki says with a wistful expression. “They are feared, but truly they are the ones that are afraid. They lash out to protect themselves; they do not seek violence.”

The last little snake does not want to eat, so Loki gently picks it up out of the enclosure, allowing it to wind its way curiously through his fingers.

“Is it sick?” Tony asks, worried in spite of his general aversion to living things that don't talk.

“Possibly. This is not an ideal environment for it. Too much light and movement. It might be stressed, or perhaps it is bored. Are you bored, little one?” Loki asks, cocking his head and smiling down at the snake. It stretches forward as far as it can, sniffing Loki’s face and trying to crawl on top of his head. Loki giggles and lets the snake do as it pleases for a time. It’s… cute. Or maybe Loki is cute, and some of it is transferring to the snake. “Do you wish to hold it?” Loki asks, turning to Tony.

“Ah… not good with animals or babies. Combine the two and I’m sure it’ll be even worse,” Tony says, shaking his head.

“Nonsense. These things are about practice. Hold your hands close to your chest, like this. Good. Here,” Loki says, depositing the little snake into Tony’s outstretched hands.

The snake is so tiny it feels like it weighs nothing. It sniffs at Tony’s fingers, then his shirt, then it inches up and sniffs a little at his cleavage, before trying to climb down Tony’s shirt. He squeals but doesn’t know what to do.

“It’s seems like everything in the universe likes breasts,” Loki says with a smile. He reaches forward, extracts the snake, and places it gently back into its enclosure.

When they are finished for the day they return to the clearing in hell. Their disguises melt away, and Tony misses his boobs instantly.

“Why do we always teleport here? Like, if you can teleport, why don’t we teleport directly back to the house?” Tony asks.

Loki sighs. “I’m too tired to obfuscate, so I’ll give you one of my extremely rare direct answers. Teleportation leaves a trace, so if someone or something were following me, it would be idiotic to lead it right back to my carefully guarded home, past my wards. Also I’m lazy, and it’s easier to teleport to a place you’ve teleported to previously.”

Dinner is subdued. Loki picks at his meal, but doesn’t really eat.

“If you want to get rest, I can clean the dishes,” Tony says.

Loki looks up at him searchingly, then nods.  “Goodnight, Stark.”

“Tony,” Tony says.

“Hm?” Loki says, turning to look back at him.

Tony smiles. “You called me Tony in the store. I liked it. Call me Tony. We’re friends now anyway, right?”

A small smile twists Loki’s face. “I suppose we are friends now, Tony. Goodnight.”

Only later as Tony lies awake, staring at the ceiling, does he realize he had a golden opportunity to run away today. Literally, the golden boy Thor was right there.

I suppose we are friends now, Tony.

“What the fuck am I doing?” Tony groans, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he can see stars.

Chapter Text

"That's the question. Was that your real motive? No doubt you argued it out with yourself, you weighed the pros and cons, you found good reasons for what you did. But fear and hatred and all the dirty little instincts one keeps dark— they're motives too." - Jean Paul-Sartre, No Exit.

 

Tony’s days develop a comfortable rhythm with disconcerting swiftness.

When the dim light of hell’s morning breaks over the tree tops of the dark forest, Loki will knock gently at the door to wake him. Then, after Tony showers and gets dressed, he will wander into the kitchen and watch as Loki prepares their breakfast. Tony is not a morning person and maintains a grumpy silence that in no way dampens Loki’s cheerful babbling. And it’s definitely babbling. Loki cannot get the words out fast enough, as though he has spent the eight hours they are apart just waiting to talk to Tony again in the morning. Sometimes his one sided monologues are funny, sometimes they are annoying, but it always brings Tony out of his morning slump.

Then Loki rushes them off to earth to try on new lives for the day. Loki is always keen to “learn something new,” and even Tony starts getting into it after a while. At first Tony was distracted, looking for a pattern, trying to figure out what Loki’s real game was, but after a while Tony just sort of accepts that Loki is doing what he wants and he’s just along for the ride. Tony isn’t sure why he has to be here for this, why Loki has decided to steal him away. Loki never tells the truth when Tony asks “Why did you bring me here?”

To punish you for destroying the manuscript” is definitely a lie, but “because I’m lonely” is part truth. So is “I thought it would be funny”, “because I get bored easily”, and “I don’t know.” They’re all the truth, just not the truth that Tony is looking for. He doesn’t know how he knows that Loki is lying, but it’s like there’s a little electrical current buzzing between them that gets broken whenever Loki is less than truthful. He can feel it.

After the second month Tony stops asking.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget the responsibilities back home, the business, his friends. All of it falls by the wayside as Tony loses himself in trying to understand Loki. “Complex” doesn’t even begin to describe what Loki is, and Tony is reluctantly enthralled. Loki possesses a softness that is razor sharp, a foolishness that borders on wisdom, a chaos that is logical and precise. Loki is… Loki.

Today, for some reason, Tony wakes up and doesn’t feel completely cranky. He sings happily in the (very nice) shower, and dances a little as he gets dressed. When he walks into the kitchen he greets Loki. With words. Like a human being. It’s unprecedented.

“Gee, Brain, what do ya wanna do today?” Tony asks with a decent attempt at cheerful.

“Try to take over the world,” Loki says over his shoulder as he fries bacon.

Tony nearly falls off the chair. “Please tell me that you’re just an unexpected fan of 90s cartoons, and that you don’t actually mean that.”

“What are cartoons?” Loki asks, this time turning to frown at Tony in confusion.

They stare at each other just long enough to make Tony's heart hurt from stress, before Loki grins. “No need to worry, Tony. I have watched Pinky and the Brain. I was merely having fun at your expense, not outlining our agenda for the day.”

“Okay, thank fuck,” Tony says, placing a hand over the arc reactor. “You’re such a dick,” he adds, and Loki snorts. “You’re a lot more into earth stuff than I ever thought you’d be, considering you think we’re ants. When did you find time to watch Animaniacs? Why did you even watch it?”

“Why did you watch it, Tony? You were hardly a child when it aired. That being said, I probably watched it for the same reasons you did. I was bored, it was late at night, it was on, it was marginally amusing.” Loki waves a hand vaguely in the air and bacon sandwiches assemble themselves. If he’s using magic to cook then he’s not in the best of moods. Tony will tread carefully, keep the conversation light. “As for when I found the time—I have nothing but time, Tony. My battle lies in finding things to do with that time.”

“Is that why I’m here?” Tony asks, sitting back as Loki places a sandwich on his plate before walking back to the counter to wave coffee into existence.

“You should stop propositioning me, Tony. I might mistake your offer as genuine.” Loki doesn’t turn, but Tony can hear the teasing smirk in his voice.

Tony thinks back over what he said, over what Loki said, and snorts. “You worked hard to read into that. It’s like you want me to proposition you.”

“And if I do?” Loki turns this time and the look on his face, a lust that burns and chills, has to be an affectation. There’s no way that Loki actually wants Tony. Still, if Tony were a foolish man…

“I don’t fuck people who kidnap me,” Tony says levelly, “or who put mayo on my sandwiches.”

Loki rolls his eyes. “What is your issue with mayonnaise? It’s delicious!”

“You’re a freak!” Tony yells, slamming his ruined bacon sandwich down on the table. “That’s it, I’m going on hunger strike again.”

“There was mayonnaise on the cheese burger you ate. Why was it not an issue then?” Loki asks, folding his arms and glaring.

“It’s supposed to be on a Whopper. It’s a part of the delicate balance of awful. But bacon sandwiches are actually supposed to be good, and that means no mayo.” Tony has rules about these things.

“You are pickier than a child.” Loki sighs in annoyance and snaps his fingers. “Fine, I have fixed your sandwich, you ungrateful whelp.”

Tony checks and hums with satisfaction. “Thank you.”

He looks up in time to catch Loki gazing at him with undisguised fondness, and his breath catches. Both of them freeze and look away immediately. Sandwiches are eaten in awkward silence, until Tony starts imagining Loki watching Animaniacs. He starts giggling.

“What?” Loki asks suspiciously.

“Just… imagining you watching cartoons. It’s… it’s really funny to me,” Tony says, looking up at Loki through mirthful tears. “Space Hitler learning the Fifty State Capitals from Wakko.”

Loki frowns, shaking a finger at Tony in protest. “Space Hitler is offensive. I’m more of a Space Caligula, really.”

Tony laughs. “I can see that, actually. Insane, sadistic, a little too fond of horses.”

“Don’t forget that I also demanded to be worshiped as a god,” Loki says, smiling gently.

Suddenly it’s too real, and Tony can’t maintain the mental distance it requires to look at Loki and see anything other than an evil man. Tony stops laughing. “This is weird. This is fucked up that we’re talking about this so... Don’t you feel uncomfortable?”

Loki picks at his sandwich and gazes at Tony placidly. “We are friends, are we not? This is shared history. Why should I be uncomfortable?”

Tony tries to articulate it, but it’s hard. “You aren’t sorry for what you did. You hurt and killed people I cared about, and you still terrorize my world on a semi-frequent basis. I…”

“Ah, then we are not friends?” Loki asks, frowning a little.

“No, I think we are, and that’s why I’m feeling this way. Why am I okay with you? What is wrong with me?” Tony runs his hands through his hair, feeling lost.

“I couldn’t begin to answer you, Tony,” Loki says, shrugging. “But know that I have never been sorry for any of my actions, and I never will be. I only ever behave according to my principles, and so I have nothing to regret—casualties in the process of conquering a world are expected and necessary. I am a warrior, I do not mourn the death of my enemies, nor do I spare a thought for their suffering. This is what I am, Tony.” Loki’s expression is intense, molten, feral, and Tony is scared for the first time since Loki spirited him away. But he also senses that Loki is lying. The tense moment passes as Loki smiles. “But these days I do not view your people as enemies, nor do I wish to conquer them. They are like placid sheep in a field, and should I wish to startle them as I pass by that is all. They amuse me and I keep walking.”

Tony feels the edges of anger but tries not to rise to it. He can’t think if he’s angry, and this is an important conversation. “We’re not sheep, Loki. We’re not ants, or cats. We aren’t toys, either. We don’t exist for your amusement.”

Loki throws his head back and laughs cruelly, and it’s terrible. He looks like the insane man that threw him from a tower, threatened Natasha, stabbed Thor, brainwashed Barton, killed Coulson. Tony remembers it all and feels nauseated that he wants to consider this man a friend.

“Everything exists for my amusement, Tony. Do not pretend you don’t share the same sentiment. We are both entitled men, born of privilege and indulged beyond reason. For all that you’re a hero when the mood strikes you, I know that you have done far more damage to your world that I ever did. And you invited hundreds into your bed and considered them nothing more than playthings—yet you tell me I should not see your people as toys. Or is this what it’s about? You are allowed to break your things but I’m not?”

That’s the last fucking straw and Tony’s brain goes offline as red descends. “You don’t know anything,” Tony hisses. “I admit I hurt people, lots of people, but I took responsibility for what I did and I tried to fix it. And yeah, I was a whore in the bedroom and the boardroom, but don’t you dare judge me for trying to find affection and adoration any way I knew how—I know a hypocrite when I see one, Caligula. So go have fun on your own today. I’m staying in my room.” Tony and walks to the hall, but turns back once more. Loki looks like he’s been punched, but Tony is too upset to care. “By the way, asshole, I know you’re lying. I can feel it—you regret. You regret everything.”

Tony leaves before Loki can say anything, slamming the bedroom door behind him.

He tries to meditate like Bruce taught him, but he ends up taking an epic angry nap instead. He wakes up around dinner time.

Usually they eat dinner together, but when Tony pads into the kitchen it’s dark. The dishes from breakfast are still on the table, which isn’t like Loki at all. Tony spends a little while worrying about it, but with a skill born of practice, he pushes those thoughts away. There are leftovers, so Tony eats by himself and then cleans the kitchen. A peace offering to Loki that he hopes will be accepted.

But the next morning Loki does not rouse him from slumber and Tony spends the whole day alone.

And the next.

The fridge magically replenishes itself, which is good, but Tony’s starting to go crazy from the quiet. And he misses Loki, which is not helping his mood. On the third day of ominous solitude, Tony starts trying to break into the other rooms, but it’s impossible. The locks cannot be picked, the doors cannot be kicked open.

On the forth day he’s starting to panic, so when a loud knocking comes at the front door he rushes to open it.

“Thank fuck, Loki--”

But it isn’t Loki.

The woman is tall and… terrifying. One half of her face is beautiful, a raven haired, pale skinned, green eyed woman that could be Loki in drag, but the other half… dead flesh, mummified and thin over her bones. Beetles and centipedes burrow and peek out around the thin skin of her neck, glittering almost like jewels. In her empty eye socket sits a poisonously green spider, seated in the center of a web.

“Howuah?” Tony mumbles, stepping back quickly as the woman presses forwards, walking with an eerily familiar stride.

“Ah, I see my father has not misrepresented your intelligence at all,” she says, looking around the hall with interest. “He has redecorated again. The man can never settle on a style. Although, this is much better than the last time he redecorated. I told him—not everything has to be green all the time. We get it, it’s your color, but after a while it makes one feel like they’ve sunk to the bottom of a lake.”

“Father?”

She looks unimpressed. “Take a wild guess. I’m told you are a genius, I’m sure you’ll get it in one go.”

“Yeah, I can see the family resemblance now,” Tony says, rolling his eyes.

She smiles, or… well, sort of. One half of her mouth smiles in a pleased smirk, the other is still mummy. “Anyway, introductions aside--”

“We didn’t actually introduce ourselves,” Tony points out.

“I am Hela, you are Tony. There, we’ve made the requisite nod at propriety. Now, I have come to take you home. Grab your things,” Hela says, then she turns to examine the painting of the golden city that hangs on the wall.

“Wait, wait. Loki’s kicking me out? Come on! We had one quasi-fight, and now he’s, what, hiding from me? Sending his daughter to do his dirty work?” Tony isn’t sure why he’s so furious. He should be ecstatic to go home. “I still have three months left!"”

Hela turns to look at him with surprise. “You wish to stay here with my father? Truly?”

“Well… no, not… not really, but I don’t want to just go and not say goodbye. I haven’t even had a proper chance to figure out what this is all about!” Tony crosses his arms petulantly. "He'll have to drag me out."

Hela blinks. Then smirks again. “Oh, I’m afraid my father is in no position to be dragging anyone anywhere. He contacted me earlier. Seems that he’s in a spot of trouble, used the last of his magics to ask me to come make sure his pet was brought safely home since it was unlikely he’d be alive long enough to do it himself.”

Tony’s heart does a weird jolt thing in his chest, like he’s been electrocuted. “Loki’s in trouble?”

“Oh dear, I wasn’t supposed to tell you any of that,” Hela says, but she looks unconcerned. “I was also told not to attempt to rescue him. However, the missive didn’t place any such restrictions on anyone else. If I were to, say… do this,” Hela waves her hand and Tony’s armor pops into existence, “and this,” Hela waves her hand again and a portal opens up in the hallway. Icy wind and snow blow through the house, instantly raising goosebumps on Tony’s skin, “and then turned my back and continued examining this painting, which is very interesting, I’m sure I wouldn’t notice if you were to make any poor life choices. Everyone would be blameless here, wouldn’t you agree, Tony?”

“I’m gonna go pack my things so you can take me home,” Tony says, stepping into his armor. A part of himself that he forgot was missing slots back into place. “I’ll probably be a while, so maybe make yourself some tea, settle in.”

Tony walks towards the portal and stops.

But he really could go home. He could pack and leave. He thinks about it, really thinks about it for the first time in the three months that he’s been trailing after Loki on their strange adventures. He waits for the bind to burn into his bones, like it did when he thought about sabotaging the arc reactor, but nothing happens.

I won’t spend six months with Loki, Tony thinks loudly. I will break the binding.

Nothing happens.

“Oh, that mother fucker,” Tony says, before stepping through the portal to find Loki.

He's not sure if he's gonna save the bastard or kill him, though.

Chapter Text

I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your skin color, no. Because of your skin color, because that color is the product of so many miracles of genetics and happenstance. Your skin is the legacy of love, and struggle, and our crazy ancestors saying "We are alive and we have hope!"

I love your skin and I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your religion, no. Because of your religion, because your religion is the shared hope of so many people trying to find meaning in a vast and terrifying universe. At the core of every religion is a soul crying out "love, love, love."

I love your religion and I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your sexuality, no. Because of your sexuality, because it's a part of you, bone deep. So many ways to be, a whole spectrum of ways to relate to those that spark a passion in us. And perhaps you are asexual--I love that too, because that is you, down to your bones. Our relation to others inspires art, music, literature--the things that make life worth living.

I love your sexuality and I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your gender, no. Because of your gender, because it is self-expression, a form of art, and art is priceless. You are priceless, and unique, and perfect in your imperfections. Never stop striving to be who you are, whether you are lucky enough to be who you want to be already, or if you are still on a journey.

I love your gender and I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your body, no. Because of your body, whether you are big or small, struggling with eating disorders, chronic health issues, or are perfectly healthy. I love your body, whether it transports you through the world with no difficulty, or extreme difficulty. You deserve to live a full life, because you are alive.

I love your body and I love you.

I love you; not in spite of your brain, no. Because of your brain, whether it adheres to the impossible standards of neurotypicality or not. Your brain is the seat of who you are, how you intake the world, how you express yourself. You deserve to exist, and be respected, regardless of your ability to navigate this society that cares so little about kindness and patience. You are not a mistake, you are not a disease, you are not a problem.

I love your brain and I love you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

 

New chapter will be posted later in the evening. I needed to tell you I love you first.

Chapter Text

Listen! Each man has an aim in life, a leading motive; that's so, isn't it? Well, I didn't give a damn for wealth, or for love. I aimed at being a real man. A tough, as they say. I staked everything on the same horse... Can one possibly be a coward when one's deliberately courted danger at every turn?” -Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

 

Everything is so vast and cold. It’s beautiful in a dark and gloomy way, sort of like hell, but it’s hard to appreciate it because Loki is in danger and Tony has no idea where he is. Friday is inaccessible this far away from earth, so he’s flying on manual.

“How the fuck do I find Loki?” Tony asks, used to talking out loud. A voice answers unexpectedly and Tony chokes, swerving wildly and nearly crashing into the side of the mountain he’s skirting past.

“My father is bound on the stone pillar straight ahead. Keep flying at this speed and you should reach him in another five minutes,” Hela says. She doesn’t sound overly concerned, eerily echoing Friday’s deadpan delivery.

“Any idea what I should expect?” Tony asks.

Hela is silent for a few moments and when she answers she is… less blasé. “I’m not entirely sure. My father has been stripped of his magic only once before, and… it was unpleasant. That was at the hands of the Aesir, though. I’m not sure what the Jotunn are capable of, but they have even less love for my father than the Aesir.”

Tony winces. “Ah, so probably not good…”

Hela sighs, and Tony thinks her voice shakes a little, but he can’t be certain. “I fully expect my father to be dead by this point, Tony. You need to retrieve his body, regardless.”

“No,” Tony says, and he speeds up. “He’s not dead. He’s a god, he can’t die.”

Hela chuckles. “My father can do anything he sets his mind to.”

“Yeah, well, I always get what I want. He’s alive and I’m bringing him home.”

Tony knows father issues and he imagines if anyone can compete with him for worst father it’s probably Hela. Although, that being said, there’s nothing in any of the stories that Tony read that said anything about what Loki was like with his kids. In fact, the only kid Tony can remember reading about is Fenrir, and two other boys named something like Nari and Narfi. He doesn’t remember reading about Hela at all.

And even if Loki was a bad father, doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him. Tony knows about that, too. He resists the urge to ask Hela about her family life and tries to focus on not hyperventilating.

Hela was right and within five minutes Tony reaches the pillar.

It’s the biggest fucking pillar Tony’s ever seen. It’s larger than his tower and at the very top Loki is gagged and bound upright between two icicles the size of more normally-sized pillars. Loki is naked, bleeding, and… bright blue. The ropes tied around his wrists keep him suspended by his arms, and his weight has dislocated both shoulders. They are stretched strangely above him. His ankles are also bound by ropes, legs spread painfully wide. Cruel weights have been clipped to the delicate skin of his scrotum. Despite all of this he retains a frustrating dignity that Tony admires and hates at the same time.

Tony lands and hurries forward to remove the gag

Loki gasps as it is unclipped, adjusting his jaw. “I regret not disciplining my children better. If I had, perhaps they would obey me now and again.”

“I knew you were kinky, but damn,” Tony says, but it doesn’t come out as indifferent as he hoped. The sight of Loki has shaken him entirely. “You obviously need a better safe word.”

Loki laughs brokenly and then winces in pain. “Are you here to rescue me or kill me, Stark?”

“It’s Tony,” he says, lifting the face plate so he can meet Loki’s eyes.

“Oh? You would choose to be friends with me, even after seeing this?” Loki shrugs painfully, presumably indicating his blue skin.

Tony shrugs too. “I don’t tend to take skin color into account when I choose friends.”

“This is not about color, this is about what I am inside. I am a monster, Stark,” Loki says, spitting in sudden rage.

Tony rolls his eyes, because really? “Practice that speech in a mirror? It sounds practiced. You should work on that, if you want it to have emotional impact, you know? Anyway, you forget that I already knew you were a monster, Loki. I chose to be your friend anyway,” Tony walks forward and reaches down to figure out how to dismantle the weights first. “This is going to hurt. I’m going to try to be as gentle as possible, but you need to hold still.”

This was not how Tony thought he’d become acquainted with Loki’s junk. He’s not going to lie to himself in his own head, he’s definitely thought about it. He always thinks about fucking his friends, he can’t help it. Once he grows to like and respect someone, even if his feelings are entirely platonic in his mind, there’s a part of him that conflates any sort of love with sex. It’s an awkward thing, but he’s learned to compartmentalize it as he’s grown older. Still, sometimes he really wishes that he’d been born a bonobo chimp and that he could solve all his problems with his dick. His life would be much easier.

“This was not how I imagined this taking place,” Loki says from above, echoing Tony’s thoughts out loud, unhelpfully. “But at least you are kneeling before me, finally.”

“Dude, I have your balls in the palm of my gauntlet. Zip your lip,” Tony says, trying not to laugh.

“Let me have my fun, Tony. The last few weeks have been…” Loki shudders.

“Weeks? You’ve only been gone four days!” Tony said, looking up with horror. “Is there more time fuckery afoot?”

“Time fuckery,” Loki says, testing the word. “You creatures do such strange things to language. Time fuckery. Yes, that is exactly what is happening. The realms are not always aligned and time can pass at different rates. Please tell me you are nearly done. I can’t think properly when you’re tugging about down there, and I--”

Tony unclips the complicated mechanism finally and Loki howls in pain. “Shit, sorry, sorry,” Tony croons, rubbing the skin a little to try to soothe it. Then he realizes what he’s doing and stops, but resumes again when Loki makes it clear that it was helping. This is so fucking awkward. “Like, we’re best friends now. Super best friends. I don’t think I’d even do this for Rhodey. If you ever, ever tell someone about this I’m going to murder you.”

“The sentiment is mutual,” Loki hisses. “You may stop.” Tony sits back on his heels and looks up at Loki. Loki’s expression is all sharp edges, but his eyes are strangely soft. “I… I have no words, Tony.”

“Let’s pretend this never happened and call it good?” Tony asks hopefully.

Loki smiles gently. “I shall agree to these terms. Now, help me down.”

“Oh, no, there are a couple more terms. I just wanted to negotiate them without those things on your balls. They were making me feel uncomfortable,” Tony says, standing up straight.

Loki’s pleasant expression shatters into fury. “You will let me down or I will eviscerate you.”

“Nah, you’ll agree to my terms or I’ll leave you here.”

“You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t leave me to die here,” Loki says, but there is an edge of desperation that means he isn’t sure.

“You lied to me, Loki. I was never bound to spend six months with you. You stole time that was rightfully mine.” Tony folds his arms, trying to look sterner than he feels. “What else have you lied to me about?”

Loki blinks rapidly shaking his head in denial, but immediately gives up almost immediately and hangs his head. “You speak true. I lied, but more than that I will not say. Offer your terms and I will accept or deny as I see fit.”

Fair enough. “I will release you if you swear to spend the last three months of our original agreement by my side. You will stay with me on Midgard, go where I go. You will also agree to truthfully answer every question I ask you--the whole truth, no more half lies. When you are released from our agreement, you must give me two months peace before you retaliate. And you can’t retaliate by hurting any of my loved ones, or any strangers. You won’t hurt anyone to hurt me.”

Loki bares his teeth in a grimace of anger and pain. “I will make you suffer for this, Tony. Why offer me the chance to retaliate at all? This will end with your head on a spike in my front garden.”

Tony should be scared, but Loki used his name. It means something. “I’m giving you a chance to retaliate because I trust you not to. Do you agree to my terms?” Tony asks.

Loki looks away. “Not entirely. I will agree to answer all your questions, bar three. I am suspended here before you, more exposed than I have ever been before another, but there are things that I must be allowed to keep to myself. Even you would not be so unmerciful as to deny me this request.”

“Alright, I accept that compromise. You accept the other terms?” Loki nods that he does. On instinct Tony takes a gauntlet off and touches a naked hand to Loki’s chest, above where his heart should be. Loki’s eyes widen fearfully as Tony touches him and the familiar scarlet bind wraps around their bones. Loki’s skin is so cold it threatens to burn, but Tony keeps his hand there, fascinated by the heartbeat underneath. It beats differently from his own, a more complicated rhythm.

“Tony, remove your hand before it is damaged. This skin was not meant to be touched,” Loki says anxiously.

“It’s cold, but it’s alright. Your heartbeat… I wish I had a stethoscope, I want to listen to your heartbeat,” Tony says. He’s lost for a time, mesmerized by the strangeness of Loki.

Cold tears land on Tony’s hand and he looks up at Loki, horrified to see that he is weeping silently. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I’ll get you down,” Tony puts the gauntlet back on and gets ready to cut the ropes.

“When you cut the binds, the frost giants will know and return. You must be prepared to fight, Tony. I will be… I will be some minutes getting my strength back. You need to hold them off until I can handle them.”

“Any idea how long that will be?” Tony asks, scanning the horizon anxiously.

“Five to ten minutes. You must fight and you must protect me. They will try to kill me and I am powerless from these binds.” Loki looks at the ropes with disgust.

Tony examines them closer and discovers that they are not ropes, they are…

“Oh my god, these are intestines,” he says, gagging a little. “That story. They really bound you with your son’s intestines, didn’t they?”

Loki grunts in pain as the oath forces him to answer. “You have well and truly damned me, Tony. Yes, yes they bound me with my son’s entrails. It’s the magic, you see? Genetically linked, the only thing my own magic cannot truly fight. I am powerless against my children, as they are powerless against me.”

“These are… whose are these? Did they get ahold of one of your children?” Tony asks, horrified.

Loki shakes his head. “Not my children. My birth father. They desecrated their own king’s corpse in order to bind me. They violated every taboo in their culture in order to render me powerless. It is likely they will utter a blood curse against your name as viciously as they do against mine, for what you undo here today.”

Tony thinks about that and finds he doesn’t really give a fuck. “In for a penny,” he says, and begins cutting the intestines. They fall apart easily, disgustingly, and Loki is freed within seconds. Tony helps prop him up next to a pillar and then turns to wait for the giants to return.

It doesn’t take long.

They are massive, powerful, and holy fuck are they mad. But Tony fights well and has about three months’ worth of suppressed rage to burn through. Yeah, he was having fun tagging along in Loki’s wake, trying on different lives like hats, but also he was really, really mad.

Genius. Multi-tasker.

 A giant gets a lucky shot in and fries the suit. Tony plummets to the ground, skidding across the top of the pillar, heading for the edge and the deadly drop. But before he meets his maker, green magic swells up and carries him gently backwards and to Loki’s side.

“Perfect fucking timing,” Tony says.

“A specialty of mine,” Loki returns, grinning manically, and the lapse in attention is just enough time for a frost giant to heft a gruesome spear and aim it perfectly into the center of Loki’s back. He grunts, stumbling forward into Tony’s arms. The tip of the spear scrapes against the suit’s reactor, making a terrible noise, before it’s ripped back out.

“No,” says Tony numbly. “Hela, Hela get us to my tower,” Tony says, not thinking clearly about the likelihood of Hela even knowing where his tower is, just knowing that Dr. Cho is the only one who has a chance of helping Loki now. But, magically and silently, Hela opens a portal to Tony’s tower, and pulls him through before the giants can finish them off.

“We need to get him to Helen,” Tony says, passing Loki to Hela, who lifts him in her arms like he weighs nothing. “Follow.”

“Welcome home, sir,” says Friday as he runs to the elevator. “Shall I let the team know that you are back?”

“Alert the medical wing that we have a patient in critical condition. Penetrating chest wound. Blood loss is… bad. Patient has next of kin, possibility for transfusion, but alien physiology, so not sure of potential complications,” he rattles off. The elevators in his building are very fast, because he is an impatient man, but it’s still taking too long. He places his hand on Loki’s chest, searching for the heartbeat. It’s there, but the rhythm is breaking down. “Hela,” he says, looking up at her searchingly. “Is there anything you can do to stabilize him?”

“My magic doesn’t work on him like that,” she says, grief-stricken. “We’re too closely related. It’s absorbed before it can do anything.”

“Then help me tie this around his chest, he’s bleeding out too fast,” Tony says, ripping his shirt off and binding it around Loki’s chest as tightly as he can. By the time it’s fastened securely, they’ve arrived at medical. It’s probably too little too late, but maybe…

Helen greets him with a curt nod and directs Hela to lay Loki out on the bed. “We’ll do our best,” she says to Tony.

A nurse leads Hela away to draw blood, and they leave Tony standing in the waiting area, feeling powerless and small.

Chapter Text

Baldr the Good dreamed great and perilous dreams touching his life. When he told these dreams to the Æsir, then they took counsel together: and this was their decision: to ask safety for Baldr from all kinds of dangers.” - Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

The elevator opens behind him and he’s nearly tackled to the ground by Steve. “Tony,” Steve whispers, choked up. “We thought you were dead.”

“No, just kidnapped again,” he grunts, torn between leaning into the warm hug and trying to pry himself away from Steve who is about to break his ribs. “How long have I been gone?”

“A year, Tony. A whole year. We searched everywhere, but Thor says even Heimdall couldn’t see you. We assumed Loki had something to do with it,” Steve says. When Tony finally manages to break free from the hug, he’s horrified to discover that Steve has tears in his perfect blue eyes.

And I was having so much fun… Tony thinks, guiltily.

“No, Loki was fucking around with me again, but I was safe. We mostly spent our time pretending to be other people, doing odd jobs around New York. I was only supposed to be gone three months, though,” Tony says, glaring at the doors that Loki is being operated on behind.

“Friday said you brought guests,” Steve says, finally looking down and seeing all the blood. “What’s happening, Tony?”

“Loki… Loki got caught and tortured, and I rescued him, but…” Tony coughs a little bit, trying hard to fight the fear that is choking him up. “He got stabbed really bad. I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

“Guests?” Steve prompts again.

“His daughter, Hela. She helped us out, got us away and brought us here at my request.”

“He has a daughter?” Steve asks, eyebrows shooting up.

Tony smiles. “He’s thousands of years old. I’m sure he has a lot of kids by now.”

“Just… he seemed too much like you to have kids. Didn’t think he’d want to be weighed down,” Steve says, punching Tony’s shoulder gently, trying to lighten the mood in his usual awkward way.

“Steve, I need you to help me,” Tony says, staring down at the floor and feeling his face heat up. This is mortifying, but if anyone will give him a chance it’s Steve. “Loki made a promise to me, like the binding one that made me build the arc reactor. He promised to stay with me for three months and answer all my questions truthfully. I need you to help me keep him out of SHEILD custody.”

“Tony…” Steve says, wincing. “He’s a criminal. He kidnapped you for a year. Your judgement on this probably isn’t the best.”

“I swear to you I don’t have Stockholm syndrome, or at least not the kind that makes me sympathize with his criminal bullshit. He’s my friend, Steve.”

“Your friend that kidnapped you,” Steve clarifies.

“Yeah, and you nearly beat me to death to protect the assassin that killed my parents. We don’t have the best taste in friends, I guess.” Tony doesn’t want to hurt Steve, but he has to get his point across.

Steve winces and turns away, looking out the window instead. “Three months?”

“Yes, and then we’ll do what we have to do if he decides to retaliate.”

“Do you think he will?” Steve turns to look at Tony. Steve may not know shit about engineering, math, or science, but he’s every bit as brilliant as Tony in his own ways. Steve’s interests lie more towards people and emotions, maybe because he’s an artist and is naturally disposed to studying faces, or because he’s a tactician and he has to see the small details to understand the big ones. Whatever he sees in Tony’s face seems to satisfy him. “Nat is already on our side, she’s been saying for years we should try to recruit Loki. Bucky and Sam will follow my lead. Thor is obviously going to side with his brother. I’m not sure about Clint, but he’s unlikely to side with SHIELD since Nick isn’t there anymore. I’m trusting you, Tony. But if this goes south, it’s on you.”

Tony feels a weight lift off his chest. “I take responsibility for my messes, Steve. You know me.”

“Yeah. I’m glad you’re back, Tony. I really missed you,” Steve says sincerely.

“You missed getting your chops busted about bein’ an old man? Or did you miss my nagging you to stop drying your socks on the heater vent in the living room?” Tony asks, smirking.

Steve rests a hand on his shoulder. “I missed having someone to talk to when I can’t sleep at night. Bucky has a hard time talking to me about nightmares, but you’re never… you never make me feel like a burden.”

Steve and Tony are both haunted by memories of icy water and darkness. It’s hard to dislike someone who has the same monsters under their bed that you do. They’ve shared many late nights over whiskey (Tony) and cocoa (Steve), talking about anything and everything, trying to keep the panic attacks at bay.

Sometimes it makes Tony laugh—he tried so hard to find his soulmate in Bruce, and all along it was Steve who understood. Bruce will always be his science buddy, but Steve is his security blanket.

“So, friends with Loki?” Steve asks, raising an eyebrow. “I didn’t think two divas like you could get along together.”

“He’s less of a diva when he’s one on one.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Well, I guess that makes sense. He really is like you; if he doesn’t have a crowd, what’s the point in performing?”

Tony puffs up his chest in mock defense. “Hey now, I’m not the one with performance issues. I perform even when no one is in the room.”

“And you’re both compulsive liars. I’m shocked it took you this long to become boyfriends,” Steve says, smirking.

Tony waves his hands frantically. “Yeah, wind that back and say it differently. He is my friend who is a boy, not boyfriend. That implies sexual, and there’s no way there’s anything like that happening.”

Steve shudders. “Yeah, you’re right. Well, how do you want to play this, Tony? Do you want me to tell the team, or do you--”

“You, please. They’re less likely to kill me if you present it to them first.”

Steve shakes his head, smiling. “Oh I dunno, they’ll probably rough you up a little anyway. You’ve been gone for a year, no attempt to contact us, and now you’re friends with Loki. I think the only reason I haven’t beaten you to a pulp is because I’m just so happy you’re alive, I want to enjoy it a little bit longer.”

“In my defense, it was only three months for me, and I thought I was under a bind to stay by Loki’s side,” Tony explains. “It’s not that I didn’t want to let you know I was okay, I just didn’t think I could.”

Steve sighs, staring at Tony. “You know I know when you lie to me Tony. You didn’t think about us at all, because you had something interesting to study. This was another one of your manic nights in the lab that turns into a week, or a last minute whim that takes you to the west coast for a week without any warning. You always do what you want. I’m not mad, I’m just--”

“If you say disappointed I will punch you in the mouth,” Tony warns. He doesn’t need the guilt trip, he really doesn’t.

“I’m not mad, I’m just not surprised,” Steve finishes doggedly.

Tony sighs and runs his hands through his hair. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know how you are, Tony. It’s okay.” Steve smiles at Tony. “If Loki tries to hurt anyone, I will kill him. I don’t care what you or Thor do to me, I’m not fucking around this time.”

“Oh my god, you said the f-word,” Tony breathes, staring up at Steve in wonder.

“Yeah, well, this is serious. I figured it called for strong language. You’re family to me, Tony. I’m not losing you to that feral son of a bitch ever again.” Steve’s eyes are dark, the rage that usually hides inside blazing bright. All Tony can do is nod. “Right, well… the team will be back in a couple hours. I’m gonna go try to figure out what the hell I’m going to tell them.”

“Where’s the team?” Tony asks, frowning. It’s not like Steve to stay behind when there’s a mission.

“Something going down in Queens, but I’m retired,” Steve says, not looking at Tony. “I train people now, but I don’t go out on missions anymore.”

Tony’s jaw drops, and he blinks. “Shit, Steve, tell me it wasn’t because of me.”

Steve laughs, eyes sparkling like fireworks on the 4th of July. “You are not the center of my universe, Tony. You are center adjacent, maybe, but I was not your grieving widow.” Steve blinks and sobers up. “I’ll explain my decision to you later. Looks like they want to call you back,” he says, nodding to a nurse that has emerged from behind the doors, looking for Tony.

Tony hugs Steve one last time. “Thank you.”

“Go see your boyfriend,” Steve says, grinning at Tony’s scowl.

The nurse leads him to the recovery room. Loki is still unconscious, but he looks less blue and most of the blood has been cleaned off. He’s still in his leathers though, and Hela is sitting next to him, holding his hand. “Blood transfusions are barbaric,” Hela says when Tony walks in.

“Yeah, well…”

“However, I think it might have saved my father’s life. It also gave me an idea.” Hela lifts their hands, and Tony notices a faint green glow. “I can’t work any spells, but he can absorb my magic like this. It’s helping to knit the wound in his chest closed.”

“They weren’t able to close the wound?” Tony asks, sitting down in a chair on the other side of Loki, and taking his other hand. It feels like the right thing to do, somehow, even though they are hardly physical with each other. Loki’s hand is cold, but when Tony brushes a thumb against Loki’s wrist the pulse is strong.

“His magic attacked the first two doctors to try. I told them to stop trying after that, and I did what I could under their direction. I am not a surgeon, however. It’s just like my father to harm those who would help him.” The look she levels at her father is equal parts love and exasperation. “But I notice he allows you to touch him. How interesting.”

Tony wants to let go of the hand immediately, but shrugs instead. “We’re besties. I rescued him from Jotun-land.”

“Do you have any idea why my father was there in the first place?” Hela asks.

Tony shakes his head. “No. We fought, sort of, and he left. Four days later you showed up and gave me a heart attack.”

“I love my father, but sometimes I wish I had it within me to throttle him.” Hela sighs and grips his hand tighter. “But he was a good father to me, despite what others might think.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Thor indicated most of his, uh… poor life choices had to do with recent events. Sounded like Loki was a respectable sort of man before all this,” Tony says.

Hela laughs. “In no way was my father respectable. No, Uncle Thor is a sentimental fool. My father has been cruel and manipulative since birth, ask any other Aesir. But still, those who were lucky enough to be loved by him saw a side that no one else ever did. He was very good with his children, for as long as he was allowed to have them.” 

“His kids got taken away?” Tony asks, frowning.

Hela’s expression turns dark. “Yes, one by one we were each removed from his care for reasons only Odin understood. My father was powerless to stop it, but… he discovered ways to escape Asgard unseen. It was what inspired him to develop the spells that could conceal him from Heimdall. When I was very young I was exiled to Hel as its ruler, a child Queen to rule over the hordes of the dishonorable dead. I was terrified, alone, but my father joined me and spent many years with me, helping me come to terms with my new role.”

She smiles at her father, a small tear tracing its way down her cheek. “To honor him I built him a house with my own hands, wove spells into each of the beams as I placed them, based on the very spellwork he used to hide from Heimdall. It is the safest place in the universe for him as long as its location is never revealed, yet he brought you there twice.” Hela looks up at Tony and the fierceness of her gaze takes his breath away. “If you ever betray my father I will sell all the souls of my realm just to claim yours, and then I will spend eternity carving my grief upon you.”

Tony looks down at Loki.

“Don’t worry kid. I’m not going to betray him,” Tony says.

He leaves then, going back to his own suite of rooms to shower and change clothing, and to be alone with his racing thoughts.

Loki exposed himself, let Tony past his defenses in a big way, much bigger than Tony had ever realized. This means nothing good—either Loki was planning on killing Tony, or maybe Loki was planning on dying. Why else would he jeopardize the one place in the universe where he could be safe, unless he expected it to no longer matter? Either way, Hela’s story has cemented a suspicion that’s been growing in Tony’s mind ever since this began.

Something is very wrong.

“What are you planning?” Tony whispers, staring out the window at the once familiar skyline. It doesn’t look right, and Tony realizes his mind still expects to see the tree line of the dark forest that surrounds Loki’s home.

He goes to sleep in his own bed and dreams of Loki.

Chapter Text

"And Frigg took oaths to this purport, that fire and water should spare Baldr, likewise iron and metal of all kinds, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, venom, serpents. And when that was done and made known, then it was a diversion of Baldr's and the Æsir, that he should stand up in the Thing, and all the others should some shoot at him, some hew at him, some beat him with stones; but whatsoever was done hurt him not at all, and that seemed to them all a very worshipful thing."- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

Tony is woken out of REM sleep, close to 3am.

“Sir, Loki is requesting your presence in the recovery room,” Friday says. She turns the lights on for him and refrains from judging him out loud as he shouts and kicks at the blankets, his motor function not yet back online. But he gets dressed eventually when he remembers how pants work and stumbles into the elevator.

Loki is awake and glaring at his daughter, who is glaring back (but still holding his hand), and they are suspiciously silent when Tony stumbles into the room, still sleep-drunk.

“Talkin’ ‘bout me?” Tony slurs, and falls down into the chair on Loki’s right side.

“What?” Hela asks, frowning at Tony.

“Gone all quiet, when I,” Tony hiccups, “walked into the room. Figured you were talking about me.”

“Of course you did,” says Loki with a small smile. “As it happens, we were not discussing you. We wanted to save that pleasure for when you arrived, so that you could be a part of it. Did you realize that I am going to murder you painfully over the course of the next ten thousand years?”

“Mm, like a sarlacc pit, but without the spikey anus,” Tony mumbles, resting his chin on his hand and yawning. When he opens his eyes, Hela and Loki are wearing identical looks of horror. “You know, like the sarlacc pit takes a really long time to digest you. When I was a kid I thought that you had to be alive for the ten thousand years, but when I got older I realized that you’d die really quickly once you were in there, so it didn’t matter how long it took to digest you. It seemed less horrible after that.”

“Is he always like this?” Hela asks, turning to look at her father.

“Nearly always,” he says, still looking at Tony with horror.

“And of all the humans you could have picked, this one--”

Loki silences her with a look, and she rolls her eye.

“If you wish for a spikey anus, I can provide that for you, Tony,” Loki says, shaking his head slightly. “Anyway… as for why I am going to kill you, have you nothing to say in your defense?”

“Not really,” Tony says, brain slowly coming back online. He can see that Loki really is very angry. This is not awesome. “Well, nothing in my defense. I can tell you why I did it, but that’ll just make you kill me harder.”

“Please, enlighten me,” Loki says, leaning back against the pillows and closing his eyes. “I want to understand, so that I can gauge just how much pain I need to inflict.”

Tony rolls his eyes. Loki isn’t going to hurt him, they both know it, but Tony will indulge this little fantasy if it will make Loki feel better. “I was angry that you were trying to end our… adventures. I was promised six months, and you were going to screw me out of half of the shenanigans I was owed. I was angry that you got yourself caught in a sex dungeon scandal without me—honestly, if you wanted to get gagged and beaten you should have told me. I would have helped you out, like a good bro.  I was angry that you can never give me a straight answer. You can’t even tell me what’s for dinner without being sneaky--”

“Surprises are fun,” insists Loki, glaring at Tony.

“Not all the time, god damn it!” Tony yells, sitting forward and pointing a finger at Loki. “I was mad! That’s why I did it. There is no other reason… maybe because it was kind of funny, but the main reason is that I was mad.”

“Well then I have my answer. A lot of pain. I shall inflict a lot of pain upon you,” Loki says sulkily.

“Oh, you can play with me all you want, but the moment I get one over on you it’s like being an asshole is a crime? I thought that’s what we did, Loki. I thought we were assholes,” Tony says, sitting back down with a sigh.

Loki looks at him, frowning, but then he smiles ruefully. “It is true, it was something I would have done. I believed in that moment that you would leave me to die, but I think I see now that you would not.”

“’Course I wouldn’t have left you. It’s not my fault you don’t trust me,” Tony says, smiling a little.

It’s all warm and fuzzy until Tony looks over at Hela. The look on her face reminds him that she is the queen of the dead. “Is that all it takes? A trite little speech and a reminder that you are also an inveterate hellion, and your rage is soothed?” Hela asks, looking from her father to Tony with dangerous incredulity.

“Well--” Loki shrugs a little, seemingly unaware of the coming storm.

“No,” says Hela, standing up and dropping his hand. “Why this man, when all the gods could not calm you? Did they not also remind you of your crimes? Did they not also make appeals to your friendship? For a century you were tied to a rock, and I was banished to the cold land of the dead in order that I might not try to impede their judgement. Why do you see reason now? Why not then, when I needed you?” Hela slaps her father across the face, tears dripping down her chin.

“Hela,” Loki says brokenly, reaching out to her.

“No. I will not look at you,” she says before vanishing.

Loki sobs once and then silences himself, hiding his face.

Tony is so out of his depth. His instinct is to run away when there are emotions, but something else tells him that he’s all Loki has right now. He cautiously reaches out a hand and grabs Loki’s, which is lying on top of the covers, mottled with bruises that are lighter than they were yesterday.

“I was drunk,” Loki whispers. “They had wrongly imprisoned my boy, and I fell into the bottom of a tankard for nearly a century. And then they invited me to a party. Everything they had done to me and my children, and they invited me to a party like it didn’t matter.”

Loki smiles bitterly. “Maybe it didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. We are effectively immortal, though we may only live thousands of years at a stretch. We are like your Earth’s turritopsis dohrnii, capable of returning to something like a zygote. Even if we die in battle, our bodies use the last of our energy to send us back so that we may be resurrected along-side everyone else, once the wheel has taken a full turn and our world ends. It always begins again, so what do these slights matter, in the span of eternity?”

Tony squeezes Loki’s hand. “It matters,” he says. Loki turns to look at him. “It all matters.”

“And yet I’m labelled a criminal,” Loki mutters.

“Well, you are, big boy. Here, let me lay it out for you,” Tony says, leaning forward until Loki looks at him again. “Your feelings matter, but they don’t justify your actions. You can’t justify hurting other people just because you’re hurt, especially not innocent people. There are other ways to get back at them for hurting you,” Tony says.

“How?” Loki whispers.

“Don’t play their game. Take your ball and go home,” Tony says. Then he sits back and watches as Loki processes what he says.

“Hardly as satisfying,” Loki says, eventually.

“Comes with less prison time, though,” Tony says. “And it would hurt your daughter less. A century was a long time, especially for a kid. Even if she’s immortal.”

“Will she forgive me, do you think?” Loki asks, and the fear on his face tugs at Tony’s heart.

“She loves you. That means it could go either way.”

“I wish you would lie to me more,” Loki says, frowning and turning away from Tony.

Tony smiles and squeezes Loki’s hand.

They stay like that until Loki falls asleep, and then Tony gently untangles his hand and heads into the hall, where Hela is sitting on a bench. “Knew it,” he said, smugly.

She turns a miserable glare in his direction. “I think I hate you.”

“Nah, I’m very charming,” he says, sitting down next to her. “He’s an ass, but you need to understand--”

“I know, Stark,” she says, waving him into silence. “I’m not angry that he has found a companion, or that you are capable of navigating his moods like a hawk navigates the wind. I am merely tired, and old wounds were already close to the surface. We will be on speaking terms tomorrow.”

“It’s okay to be mad at your father,” Tony says. “He fucked up. You don’t need to let it go. His pain matters, but your pain matters too. It’s okay.” He looks up at Hela and smiles.

She sighs. “I am also allowed to take my ball and go home?”

“You were listening!” Tony cries, pretending to be scandalized. Hela’s lips thin in annoyance.

“You don’t understand just how impossible it is to escape. Even for me,” she says. “I was cast out, but I will be reborn again into the cycle, old memories laid under the new. We will all pretend that we never… that it has never happened before, but still I will know. Still Loki will sew destruction, still I will be banished, and still we will end. Over and over until the death of the universe, and possibly beyond that. It is like a time loop, but worse.”

“Sounds like Groundhog Day plus Thanksgiving,” Tony says, frowning. “No one has ever managed to break the loop? Ever?”

Hela thinks. “Some, but the price is too high. It is certainly not a price my father will be willing to pay. So, you see, despite your wisdom, he will never take his ball and go home. He will continue to suffer and each turn of the wheel he will grow more venomous.”

“Jeez,” Tony says, because what else is there to say?

“Aye,” Hela whispers. “Thor knows nothing, of course. Do not ask him. He does not see the evidence of Odin’s treachery like my father and I do. Almost no one does.”

“Who else is aware they're in a loop?”

“Precious few. My father, myself, Odin, I suspect Heimdall. Baldr was another, but he found a way to escape. As I said, the price was high.”

“How did he escape?” Tony asks.

“He died a true death and ensured his spirit could not travel back to Odin,” Hela says, smiling sadly. “Our spirits come from Yggdrasil, but also are the seeds of Yggdrasil. The first loop, the base of our immortality. If the seeds are not replanted and nurtured Yggdrasil will not grow. Yggdrasil and Odin make it very, very hard to escape. Baldr made sure his seed was burned beyond all hope. As consequence we no longer speak his name.”

“Ah. Loki wouldn’t like that?” Tony says. It’s a guess, but Loki seems to work very hard at being the center of attention.

“Something like that. He is scorned, but he holds a very important role in Asgard. He prevents stagnation and ushers us towards our nadir. He is never thanked for it, but he is essential to the cycle.”

“So it’ll probably be even harder for him to escape…”

“Exactly.”

Tony sighs and stands up. “You know what? It’s 4am, I got very little sleep, and I’m too… “ Tony waves a hand, trying to find the word. “I’m too muggle to comprehend most of what you told me. I officially bail. Sorry, doll.”

Hela chuckles. “It is likely you will forget everything I’ve said anyway. Everyone always does.”

Tony goes back to his room, but despite what he told Hela he is far from bailing. He's heard of toxic families, but this is beyond. Trapping your whole family in a cycle that is doomed to repeat itself, over and over, literally for all eternity? Talk about control issues. No, Tony isn't going to bail. Tony is going to do what he does best and find a way to break something unbreakable.

“Friday, when it’s a reasonable hour, contact… god, I can’t believe I’m saying this. Contact Dr. Strange and tell him I would like to speak with him."

Chapter Text

"But when Loki Laufeyarson saw this, it pleased him ill that Baldr took no hurt. He went to Fensalir to Frigg, and made himself into the likeness of a woman. Then Frigg asked if that woman knew what the Æsir did at the Thing. She said that all were shooting at Baldr, and moreover, that he took no hurt. Then said Frigg: 'Neither weapons nor trees may hurt Baldr: I have taken oaths of them all.' Then the woman asked: 'Have all things taken oaths to spare Baldr?' and Frigg answered: 'There grows a tree-sprout alone westward of Valhall: it is called Mistletoe; I thought it too young to ask the oath of.' Then straightway the woman turned away; but Loki took Mistletoe and pulled it up and went to the Thing." -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

Tony is woken from REM sleep a second time, this time much more violently.

“You son of a bitch!” Pepper screams in his ear before landing heavily on him, straddling him and pummeling his face with her tiny, horrifyingly strong hands.

“Jesus Christ, Pep!” Tony shouts, trying to avoid her punches which are a lot more accurate than they usually are. “Oh my god, did you get back into boxing? You’re really good,” he says, finally succeeding in grabbing her hands and holding them stationary. He thinks his lip might be bleeding.

“Yeah,” Pep says, breathing hard. Then she starts crying.

“Oh my god, you’re doing this on purpose. You know I hate it when you cry!” he whines, completely freaked out.

“That’s right. I’m crying because you’re a bastard. Watch me cry! Watch me cry, you dick,” Pepper yells, moving so that she’s hovering over his face, hot tears landing on his cheek and nose.

Tony shakes his head, trying to get away. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was back as soon as I was in the tower!”

Pepper wrenches her hands free and slaps him hard on the shoulder. “How could you? A whole year! A whole year and no word. Where the hell were you?”

“Loki,” is all Tony says before Pepper shrieks again.

“Oh great! You were practically writing his name on your school binders after the last time. I’m guessing you got married this time? Or are you just engaged? Do I get an invitation to the wedding?” Pepper grips his shirt in both hands and hauls him bodily upwards until they are eye to eye.“If the bridesmaid dresses are red and gold I will kill you,” she says through gritted teeth.

Before he’d have easily laughed it off, but this time the implication that something romantic is going on between him and Loki is… it’s just hard to laugh it off this time.

Pepper rolls her eyes and drops him. “Oh my god Tony, really?”

 Tony gets defensive. “He kidnapped me, okay? I didn’t exactly ask him to whisk me away on a romantic-thingy! There’s nothing going on! I barely had any fun at all.”

“I was in mourning for nearly a year, but you barely had any fun at all,” she says hollowly.

“Look, it was only three months for me--”

“Not the point, Tony! I thought you were dead and you didn’t think about me at all. You didn’t think of Steve, or the team, or Rhodey--”

He sits up and grabs her by the shoulders firmly, frowning at her. He shakes her gently, once, testing it out. It’s weird, so he doesn’t do it again. “Now listen here, Virginia Potts. I thought about you. I thought about you every damn day, but I was stuck in the land of the dead, at the mercy of someone who makes me look like an emotionally balanced, sane individual. I may like the guy, but he’s dangerous, even to me. It wasn’t Ten Rings, but it sure as fuck wasn’t voluntary. Give me some credit, okay?”

Pepper starts crying again, but she stops trying to beat him up, so he hauls her in for a hug and allows her to fall apart on his shoulder. It’s really icky, but he loves her, so he tolerates it with as much grace as he can. Which means very little grace at all. “This is gross,” he says, but she knows he barely means it.

When she’s finished she sits back and stares at him, sniffling a little. “I’m glad you aren’t dead.”

“Thanks,” he says. Pepper rolls her eyes again and gets up.

“I think you owe me breakfast,” he calls after her as she walks out into the living room.

Then she screams.

Tony bolts out of bed, grabs a repulsor from the bedside table, and rushes out of his room to find Pepper with her hand over her mouth, staring at… Hela.

“Oh, Pep, this… this is Hela. She’s the queen of the place I was, uh… at,” Tony says, taking the repulsor off and placing it on top of a handy book case. “Hela, this is Pepper, my friend and the CEO of my company.”

“And your woman,” Hela spits, glaring at Tony for some reason.

“Ugh, no, not his woman,” Pepper says. Now that she knows Hela is not an enemy, she becomes a hurricane of charm and warmth. “A pleasure to meet you, your majesty. And I'm sure I have you to thank you for bringing Tony back to us safely. If there's anything I can get for you, anything I can do at all, please let me know.”

Hela’s eye widens and she stares at Pepper for a moment, before clearing her throat awkwardly. “Thank… yes.”

Hela is turning scarlet. Well, half scarlet. Hela is looking at Pepper the way that Tony looks at Lo—really nice whiskey, or a car, or something.

Tony grins evilly. “Have you had breakfast yet, Hela?”

“No,” Hela says, not looking at Tony. She looks like she might like to eat something that rhymes with ‘Mepper Motts’.

“Pep, why don’t you take Hela for breakfast, just the two of you? Show her around the city a bit, give her a hands-on tour,” Tony says generously.

Hela looks up at him in alarm, shaking her head a little, but Pepper is immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Tony knows she’s got a thing about royalty; the little girl inside her is still excited by the idea of castles and crowns. “I would love to, your majesty! Oh, there’s a wonderful breakfast place, very relaxed. We’ll get mimosas!”

Pepper drags Hela away, and the little boy inside Tony that enjoys figuring out how parts fit together squeals in joy. He hopes something interesting happens with that.

“Sir, Dr. Strange has responded to my request for a meeting. He says that he will be available today at noon, and that you should remember what happened the last time you went to the Sanctum Sanctorum.”

Tony growls low in his throat. “I asked him to pull a rabbit out of a hat once, and I’m still on the magic shit list.”

“I believe you’re on the shit list for trying to use The Orb of Agamotto as a basketball,” Friday says.

“Shut up! I’m a genius!” Tony yells, stomping back to his room to get dressed.

After he gets dressed he swings by Loki’s room, but Loki is being boring and sleeping.

Then he thinks about swinging by the common room to see if the team are in, but he remembers that he still doesn’t know how the whole “Tony isn’t dead; Loki is in the building” conversation went, so instead he sneaks out of the building and walks to 177A Bleeker Street. He gets there 20 minutes early, so he stops by a coffee shop and buys two coffees.

It’s not that Tony doesn’t respect Dr. Strange. He does, actually. A lot. When Dr. Strange explained that magic was like the source code of the universe, Tony was totally on board with that. At one point he almost sort of hero-worshipped Dr. Strange, because let’s face it, the guy has a lot of charisma. You have to have a lot of charisma to wear a cloak in broad daylight, in public, with a goatee, and not look like a super villain or a crazy person.

But Dr. Strange made it very clear that he found Tony dull and beneath him, and that just completely burst Tony’s balloon. Still, there’s a part of Tony that really wants to impress Dr. Strange, and he hates it. It’s the part of himself that has lain dormant since his father’s death.

He’s standing on the front step of the Sanctum Sanctorum, trying to figure out how to knock on the door without putting down either coffee, when Dr. Strange opens the door. Tony extends one of the coffees. “Hi!” he says cheerfully.

Dr. Strange looks at the coffee for a few moments before taking it. “Thank you,” he says stiffly.

“It’s pumpkin spice!” Tony says, following Dr. Strange inside, resisting the urge to get into a slap fight with the cloak. It’s a really cool cloak. He wonders if it can play chess.

Dr. Strange sighs “You always find a new way to horrify me, Mr. Stark.”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice. You don’t have to be such a dick,” Tony says, sitting down in a chair in Dr. Strange’s luxurious and kooky office. Lots of magical objects. Lots of no-touchy. Tony isn’t good with no-touchy, but he’s trying so damn hard. He wants to impress Dr. Strange.

“You’re right,” says Dr. Strange, with enough good grace to look chastened. But then he opens his mouth again. “Thank you for your gift of this tacky, seasonal beverage.”

“Try it and then sass me, asshole,” Tony says, sipping his own coffee and sighing with pleasure.

Dr. Strange frowns and takes a sip of the coffee. His eyes widen, then narrow at Tony. “It doesn’t taste like pumpkins,” he says, accusingly.

“Admit you like it and that I just showed you something magical,” Tony insists.

Dr. Strange rolls his eyes and does no such thing, but he takes another generous sip of his coffee. “Tell me why you are here, Tony.”

“I have a… friend. A magic friend, who has a magic problem. He’s… stuck in a kind of loop. I don’t understand anything about it, but it’s something to do with souls and a tree, and cycles,” Tony begins vaguely. Then he realizes that this whole idea was stupid. He can’t get answers from Dr. Strange if he doesn’t even know what he’s asking. Dr. Strange looks unimpressed.

“Souls and a tree,” Dr. Strange says. “Is your magical friend Thor?”

“Well...” Tony says, wincing a little.

Dr. Strange’s eyes widen. “Is your magical friend Loki?”

“Sort of?”

Dr. Strange jumps up out of his seat, rushes around the desk and grabs Tony by the shoulders, shaking him. “You are the biggest fool alive, Stark! That monster threatens this planet every time he steps on it! Are you brainwashed? Has he enchanted you?”

“Well, no, he kidnapped me kind of, but he’s actually really nice,” Tony says quietly, feeling very small and slightly stupid.

Dr. Strange straightens up, eyes going distant and unfocused. “This is worse than the time you tried to play basketball with The Orb of Agamotto.”

“Oooh, I’m so fucking sorry!” Tony cries sarcastically. “I promise I won’t play Frisbee with The Plate of Brian Eno; just help me help my friend.”

“Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is a musical genius, you are an idiot, and your friend is a lying, manipulative asshole from another realm, more powerful than you can imagine. It’s probably too late, but you should end your acquaintance with that man before you end up dead, or worse.”

Tony snorts. “What, Hermione. Expelled?”

Dr. Strange grits his teeth. “Or turned inside out in a hell dimension.”

“So you aren’t going to help me?” Tony asks, choosing to ignore that image.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” Dr. Strange says, folding his arms and glaring at Tony until he gets the hint and stands up. Once Tony is outside, the door slams shut with a less than friendly sound.

 “That probably could have gone better. But it definitely could have been worse,” Tony says to himself.

He's about to start on the long walk back to the tower when he suddenly realizes that he doesn't have his coffee. He's feeling very disappointed when the cup materializes in his hand. The cup is empty.

"Thanks, David Copperfield."

 

Chapter Text

"Hödr stood outside the ring of men, because he was blind. Then spake Loki to him: 'Why dost thou not shoot at Baldr?' He answered: 'Because I see not where Baldr is; and for this also, that I am weaponless.' Then said Loki: 'Do thou also after the manner of other men, and show Baldr honor as the other men do. I will direct thee where he stands; shoot at him with this wand.' Hödr took Mistletoe and shot at Baldr, being guided by Loki: the shaft flew through Baldr, and he fell dead to the earth; and that was the greatest mischance that has ever befallen among gods and men.

Then, when Baldr was fallen, words failed all the, Æsir, and their hands likewise to lay hold of him; each looked at the other, and all were of one mind as to him who had wrought the work, but none might take vengeance, so great a sanctuary was in that place. But when the Æsir tried to speak, then it befell first that weeping broke out, so that none might speak to the others with words concerning his grief. But Odin bore that misfortune by so much the worst, as he had most perception of how great harm and loss for the Æsir were in the death of Baldr." - Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

“Steve,” says Tony sternly.

“Listen, Tony, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” Steve says, holding his hands up defensively.

“So you just didn't do anything at all?” Tony asks, shifting slightly to stand more firmly in front of Loki. "All you had to do was say ‘Hey guys, Tony’s back, and Loki is a… um, sort-of-ally’."

The rest of the team are pointing various weapons at Loki, although Clint looks like he’s aiming for Tony.

“Oh, okay, I’ll put the guns away now,” Natasha says sarcastically. 

“Friends, this is unnecessary,” Thor tries to reason with them. Not that he is not also infuriated with Tony (and Loki, but mostly Tony). But his brother is lying in a hospital bed, and has apparently been there for the past three days. Even such a grievous wound as this should have healed much quicker through Loki’s magic. It is very concerning.

Hela, his niece, stands off to the side watching the scene unfold with great amusement. Thor wonders if she would like a bag of popped corn to go with the show, as the Midgardians are fond of. They make eye contact and she rolls her eyes heavenward. They have both been here before; in the midst of an angry mob, brought to a frothing rage by Loki, who sits as though unaffected in the center of the chaos he has made.

His brother looks bored and Thor feels a smile threatening to curve its way across his face. It is like when Loki the kitten (now cat, if Thor is forced to admit it) corners Skywalker and yells at him—Skywalker contrives to look as bored as possible, although his tail always betrays his inner turmoil. Thor wishes that Loki his brother had a tail; some sort of tell that would make it possible to read him.

“I do wish you'd put away those guns. If one of you was to accidentally misfire and hurt my—hurt Tony, I would be very… displeased,” Loki says. It is the first thing he has said since the team barged into the room after learning (on accident) that Tony and Loki were both in the recovery suite, nearly twenty minutes ago. Pepper had asked Steve if he knew which room Tony wanted Loki discharged to, and everything had “gone to shit” as the Midgardians are fond of saying.

Loki’s pronouncement changes the mood in the room and everyone puts their weapons away, except for Bucky who merely points his gun at the ground.

“Good, this is good,” says Tony, smiling a little.

“Shut up, Tony,” Loki says shortly, grabbing the back of Tony’s shirt and dragging him backwards and out of the way. He sits up slowly with Tony’s help, and stares at the team balefully. “I have never said this before, least not with sincerity, but I beg for a truce. I merely want to spend my remaining three months with Tony in peace. I have no intention to do anything heinous or unnatural.”

A very loud silence follows this declaration.

“I believe him,” Natasha says, and that’s all it takes. Clint gives Natasha twenty dollars and leaves. Bucky holsters his gun, and Sam looks around at everyone like they’re crazy. “Really?” he says, but he leaves with the rest of them.

Thor remains, stepping forward to Loki’s side. “Brother, this wound--”

“Leave it, Thor. I’ll recover, I always do,” Loki says sharply, but without much malice.

“Stark,” Thor says, looking to Tony for explanation.

“Not my story to tell,” Tony shrugs, looking down at Loki. Some silent communication passes between them, and Thor feels just how much time and events have separated him from his brother. It used to be Thor that Loki would turn to with eloquent silence.

Thor knows he has a reputation as a buffoon but he is savvy enough to know when he is unwelcome without waiting for it to be announced aloud. He bids goodbye to Stark and his brother, and shares an embrace with his niece.

“Uncle,” she murmurs, smiling at him gently.

He has never had luck with his nephews but Hela was always willing to meet him halfway. He smiles at her and reaches out a hand to pat her on the head like she is still a little girl. She frowns at him, but it is a warm sort of admonishment twinkling in her eye.

“Your beauty only grows,” Thor says gently, and then he leaves.

Thor wishes to leave the tower and go home to his cats, for he is experiencing an aching homesickness for a time and a place that he will never be able to return to, but Steve is waiting for him in the hall. “Can we talk on the roof?”

“I’ll follow you,” Thor says graciously, swallowing down his emotions and putting on a cheerful smile. It is expected. Always expected.

Loki spoke once of living in his shadow, as though Thor were the privileged child. What Thor would have given to be allowed one iota of the freedom that Loki attained daily in that shadow, one moment spared from the scrutiny, the vivisection. Loki is not the only one who is capable of attaining invisibility, it’s just that Thor had to learn to be invisible in his own body. 

Thor follows Steve out onto the roof, under the shade of the small garden they have cultivated together as a team. Thor has discovered that it’s a pleasant place to hide, and it is pleasing to grow things. He is calmer here, even now.

“Stop it,” Steve says, looking at Thor with a stern expression.

“I’m not sure--” but Steve doesn’t let him finish.

“Stop it, Thor. Your brother was missing for a year and now he’s in a hospital bed with a serious injury. Stop pretending you’re okay.”

Thor feels exposed, like he’s drowning, like he’s crumbling inwards on himself. He turns away from Steve and is so utterly ashamed when the first sob escapes, but after that he can’t stop. He can lift Mjolnir and pivot the whole universe around its fixed point, but he is not strong enough to stop weeping. Steve gives him the dignity of space and silence. He hands Thor a pack of tissues when the sobs finally stop.

“This is humiliating,” Thor says sullenly, staring at the ground, wiping his nose.

“Oh shut up,” Steve says gently, dragging Thor over to sit on a low bench. “I’m your brother. Maybe not by blood, but that doesn’t change anything. You shouldn’t be ashamed to cry in front of your own brother.”

And that sets Thor off again of course, maybe worse than the first time. He wants his brother back so badly, his little brother who used to look up to him and confide in him. He misses the security that came from knowing that no matter how bad things got, that hand would be there to pull him up. It’s gone, it’s all gone. He doesn’t recognize his father anymore, his mother is dead, and his brother has disowned him. Strangely, that last one is what truly makes him feel like an orphan.

“I miss his hatred. That’s the odd thing,” Thor says after he is able to speak again. “At least when he hated me I knew that he felt something, that I was in his heart somewhere. But… he’s indifferent, now. Cold and polite, like we’re strangers.”

“You are strangers, Thor,” Steve says.

“I know him better than anyone,” Thor insists angrily.

Steve smiles sadly. “No, you don’t. Maybe you did once, but I don’t think that’s been true for a long time.”

And that is Steve’s real power. He tells the truth, and it’s such an ugly, vicious, simple thing.

“I thought I still knew Bucky, you know?” Steve says, knocking his shoulder into Thor’s in a companionable way. “I didn’t understand why he was so angry at me when I kept trying to pick up where we left off. It was an insult to everything that he’d gone through. I kept pretending like I knew him and it invalidated all of the hell that he’d lived through. He was awake while I was asleep, and I wanted his life to just be a bad dream. We worked it out, eventually. I mean, I still know parts of him, but… I had to get to know the rest of him. I couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t changed. I’ve changed too, I guess. It’s different now, we’re different, but it’s… it’s better than lying.”

“I don’t know how to get to know him again when he won’t let me,” Thor says.

He watches as a butterfly floats through the air, alighting on a lavender stalk, and he thinks about hurricanes.

“You start treating him the way you treat an acquaintance you would like to get to know better. You don’t expect anything of him, or make demands of him. Try to find the common ground that exists now, not the common ground that you assume is still there. You treat him like you treated us in the beginning. Uh, well, after we beat the Chitauri. I don’t think he’d appreciate you attacking him with your hammer, it sends the wrong message.” Steve smiles at him and Thor tries to smile back. It’s a broken, small thing but it feels like the most honest smile he’s given in centuries.

“Thank you, Steve,” Thor says.

Steve grips his shoulder affectionately. “Always, brother.”

He lets Thor escape after that.

Thor walks through the city and tries to keep his mind blank. He watches the people he passes on the street; sunny faced tourists, stony faced residents, all of them with complex lives of their own. He wonders if Loki has come to appreciate the Midgardians like he has. Or perhaps he just appreciates Tony.

Thor is a little surprised that they seem to genuinely like each other. He was certain that Tony would push things too far, certain that Loki would claim his tongue for the disrespect that flows naturally from Tony's mouth. But perhaps he really doesn’t know his brother anymore. It is more likely that he doesn’t know his brother than that Tony learned an ounce of respect, and the thought fills him with dark amusement. Perhaps Loki has claimed Tony’s tongue in other ways. That would not surprise Thor; Tony and Loki are both unrepentant hedonists, and would not blink at bedding former enemies, or even current enemies. He carefully blanks his mind again and concentrates on the crowds of people that pass him by.

Soon Thor is walking through the door of his apartment. He is immediately greeted by the sound of crashing pottery, and the sleek form of Loki the cat streaking into the entry area to greet him as though he had nothing to do with it.

“Loki, you are costing me a fortune,” Thor says, bending down to pick him up.

He walks through the rooms, finding the rest of his small family, and slowly piling them in his arms. Hveðrungr is displeased, growling lowly in his throat, but they all cooperate more or less. Silvertongue deigns to be lifted from out of his cave beneath the bed, and they stay with Thor on the bed as he falls apart, clinging to what is left of his brother. Discarded names and a memory of a small, black haired boy who smiled at him like he was the sun.

Chapter Text

"Now when the gods had come to themselves, Frigg spake, and asked who there might be among the Æsir who would fain have for his own all her love and favor: let him ride the road to Hel, and seek if he may find Baldr, and offer Hel a ransom if she will let Baldr come home to Ásgard. And he is named Hermódr the Bold, Odin's son, who undertook that embassy. Then Sleipnir was taken, Odin's steed, and led forward; and Hermódr mounted on that horse and galloped off.

[...]

Now this is to be told concerning Hermódr, that he rode nine nights through dark dales and deep, so that he saw not before he was come to the river Gjöll and rode onto the Gjöll-Bridge; which bridge is thatched with glittering gold. Módgudr is the maiden called who guards the bridge; she asked him his name and race, saying that the day before there had ridden over the bridge five companies of dead men; but the bridge thunders no less under thee alone, and thou hast not the color of dead men. Why ridest thou hither on Hel-way?' He answered: 'I am appointed to ride to Hel to seek out Baldr. Hast thou perchance seen Baldr on Hel-way?' She said that Baldr had ridden there over Gjöll's Bridge,--'but down and north lieth Hel-way.'" -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

Tony feels like maybe things are going to be okay. The team is angry but not homicidal, and Loki is able to stand up and start walking again (not for long stretches of time, but it’s an improvement).

Loki is still too pale and sleeps too much, but Tony knows better than to say anything. He lets his actions speak for him instead—he buys Loki a whole wardrobe of beautiful clothes and shoes, presents him with his own room that is decorated in rich woods and fabrics when Loki makes it clear he finds the industrial aesthetic of the tower unappealing, makes sure Loki only eats the best of what New York has to offer. He’s not courting Loki, if anyone asks. But… a part of him hopes that maybe Loki is impressed and flattered by the attention all the same.

“You’re hovering,” Loki complains whenever Tony stops by his room.

Tony tuts. “I’m used to spending at least eight hours a day with you. I feel weird when I don't see you.”

“Absurd little man,” Loki says, but a small smile crinkles the corners of his eyes.

Tony likes the fact that he can put that look on Loki’s face. He feels like one of those people that somehow befriended a deadly animal, like that guy who hangs out with grizzlies, or that lady that ran with the wolf pack and got accepted. Loki is a deadly beast, and Tony gets to rub his belly.

Well, not literally. That would be asking for too much. But Tony is confident that he’s special to Loki in important ways. He’s having a really good time.

It lasts a week before life lobs a grenade at them.

It’s midnight and Tony and Loki are playing Past Lives, because neither of them can sleep. 

Loki lands on a Twist of Fate square and reads his card aloud, frowning thunderously. “You become Chief Eunuch in the seraglio of Suleiman the Magnificent, collect 125. What in the nine…”

Tony counts out Loki’s money and hands it to him, giggling a little. “My turn, now.”

Loki shifts on the bed in agitation, nearly overturning the game pieces. “This game is incomprehensible.”

“I dunno, I’m having a lot of fun, personally,” Tony says, rolling the dice. He moves forward five spaces and lands in the Dark Ages on a Treasure square.  “Ooh, Viking longboat! Score,” he says, adding the card to his treasure pile.

And then the lights in the room flicker and die, plunging them into darkness. “Friday?” Tony asks, but he knows it’s pointless. “Well this isn’t good.”

“Tony,” Loki says in alarm, grabbing his wrist painfully and pulling him onto the bed a moment before a flickering portal opens right behind where Tony was sitting.

Dr. Strange comes stumbling through it, knocking over the chair. He’s holding a glowing orb that lights up the room with a green glow, looking harried. “Ah, good, I’m in the right room. Mr. Stark, Mr. Laufeyson. I must apologize for my sudden appearance, but I’m afraid it’s necessary.”

“What did you do to my tower?” Tony asks, shaking Loki’s hand off his arm where it’s still gripping tightly and standing up, pointing an accusing finger at Dr. Strange.

“Well, technically I didn’t do anything to the tower,” Dr. Strange hedges, looking oddly embarrassed. “You see, after you visited me and confessed to harboring a very dangerous criminal, I thought maybe… I thought maybe SHIELD should know. I still had a number for the agent that approached me some years ago, so I reached out. It wasn’t until my associate, Wong, reminded me of the… kerfuffle some years ago that I realized I had not updated my rolodex since before it became apparent that Hydra--”

“You told a Hydra agent that Loki is here in the tower,” Tony finishes numbly. “Loki, the guy they’ve been trying to recruit-slash-kidnap ever since the invasion.”

“I am here and I’m going to fix this,” Dr. Strange says, throwing the orb up at the ceiling. It sinks in and the lights flicker back on briefly before cutting out again. “Oh, damn…”

“There is another sorcerer in the building,” Loki says. He sends up his own sphere of light to hover over their heads, then throws the covers back and struggles to stand up. Tony doesn’t offer help, just stands a little closer so Loki can use Tony’s arm if he needs to. He does, and Tony preens a little on the inside.

“Two sorcerers, I think,” says Dr. Strange, frowning a little.

“Great, two evil sorcerers in my building, all because you thought I needed a spanking,” Tony says angrily. “I am never letting you live this down.”

“I don’t suppose we can call it even? This indiscretion balanced against… everything you’ve ever done in my presence since the day we met?” Dr. Strange asks plaintively.

Tony considers it. “Okay, if you come to my birthday party this year we’ll call it even. Also, you have to stop being mean to me.”

“Stark,” Dr. Strange says angrily, but before he can say anything else the building rocks as an explosion lights up the night sky outside.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Tony says, trying to choke down the panic and the flashbacks. “I don’t have any way to access my suits, they're all in the basement right now.”

Loki grabs his shoulder and a green glow covers Tony’s body instantly. “This will keep you safe enough while we find a way to get to your workshop.”

Dr. Strange gives them a disapproving glance, but he keeps his mouth shut and heads for the door. “We’ll make for the stairwell, sweep floor by floor. Who else is in the building?”

“The rest of the team, night shift security, regular custodial staff, a couple interns on the R&D level checking on some experiments,” Tony rattles off from memory. “Probably about thirty to fifty people in total.”

“My daughter,” Loki says quietly.

“Pepper…” Tony adds, wincing.

“This is fine, it’s all going to be fine,” Dr. Strange says a little desperately. “Let’s go.”

They sweep five floors before they come across anyone.

Steve and Bucky are camped out in an alcove, covered in cuts and plaster dust.

“They hit the common room first, came through the window. A team of about ten armed men. Clint and Natasha went in the opposite direction, Wanda grabbed Sam and disappeared,” Steve tells them. “Buck and I decided to head upwards to try to find you.”

“Where is Thor?” Tony asks.

“He hasn’t been to the tower in a couple days. We’re hoping he suddenly misses us and shows up,” Bucky says.

Loki is leaning heavily on Tony and he huffs quietly against his neck. “He never misses a chance to be a hero. If he heard that explosion, which I’m sure the whole city did, he’ll be here soon enough.”

Steve blinks at Loki, before nodding at everyone else. “Let’s start heading back down, try to find the rest of the team.”

“Thought you retired, cap,” Bucky says under his breath.

“Shut up,” Steve says, leading them to the stairwell.

The magic douche bags decide to show up when they’re halfway down the stairs, of-fucking-course. Two masked figures in scarlet robes start waving their hands and suddenly everything is very M.C. Escher and wiggly.

“Tedious,” Loki growls, waving an impatient hand. Everything rights itself instantly and the sorcerers blink back out of existence. It’s... it’s damn impressive. Tony has a hard time not getting hard.

Dr. Strange whistles appreciatively. “They weren't as much trouble as I’d expected.”

“Never underestimate children. I may be stronger and more skilled, but they have ignorance and recklessness on their side,” Loki says quietly. “We will proceed with extreme caution.”

“How are ignorance and recklessness an advantage?” Dr. Strange asks, frowning.

Loki smiles grimly. “If you do not know your limits then you are limitless.”

Which is bullshit, Tony thinks, but Dr. Strange nods, contemplating Loki’s words like there’s wisdom in them.

They find Natasha and Clint on the next level down with the interns, who look very young and very scared.

“We took out a team of muggles,” Clint says, nodding to a pile of unconscious Hydra agents. “We haven’t come across any others yet. If this is all they sent, it’s a pretty small team considering they’re trying to fuck with the Avengers. I think they were hoping for a quick in-n-out deal, send the sorcerers to grab Mojo Jojo over there and then G-T-F-O.”

“Their sorcerers aren’t nearly powerful enough,” Dr. Strange says, smirking a little.

Loki frowns but doesn’t say anything.

“Come on,” Tony says. “Let’s go get me in a suit so I can be useful.”

They team descends the stairs in silence, but the sorcerers do not make an appearance.

The next floor is where the custodial staff work out of. About twenty people are huddled together in a small office, relatively unharmed. "We're fine--go beat those bastards up!" shouts a woman who looks like a little granny.

The team takes her advice and heads back down the hall to the stairwell.

Suddenly the two sorcerers step out of thin air, one in front and one behind, multiplying until the entire hallway is choked by red garbed assholes.

“Loki of Asgard, we offer you the chance to join us in remaking the world,” the shorter sorcerer says, stepping forward and bowing.

Loki sneers. “If I wanted this world, I would take it myself.” He flicks his wrist and the illusions disappear, leaving the two sorcerers again. “Who taught you to spell weave? Your illusions are pathetic.”

“You could teach us,” the taller sorcerer says eagerly.

“Oh, yes, what a tempting offer. I love teaching imbeciles. Get out of my sight,” Loki growls, and with another flick of his wrist the sorcerers vanish.

“God, they really want you,” Tony says, chuckling and shaking his head.

“They can’t have me,” Loki says absently. “I think Hydra might not take no for an answer this time, though. They’ve never confronted me with sorcerers. They usually try to avoid threatening me outright. Something has changed.”

“They aren’t much of a threat,” says Dr. Strange.

Loki smiles at Dr. Strange, but it isn’t very friendly. “Hubris has been my downfall too many times, doctor. This night will be different.”

Lightning cracks outside, announcing the impending arrival of Thor, and Loki sighs deeply. “I suppose it was too much to hope for an uncomplicated fight.”

Before Tony can reach out to comfort Loki, Thor crashes through the window and lands in front of them, cape swirling dramatically. “And I suppose it was too much to hope that Thor could make an entrance without breaking a window,” Tony mutters to Loki. Loki shoots him an amused glance, and perks up a little.

Steve gives Thor the important information while Tony and Loki stare awkwardly at Dr. Strange.

“What?” he asks, cape twitching in agitation.

“Just… I still can’t believe you tattled on me to Hydra,” Tony says, shaking his head.

Dr. Strange purses his lips and glances away. “I can’t believe you’d harbor a dangerous criminal.”

“He may be dangerous, and he may be a criminal, but, uh…” Tony doesn’t know where he’s going with this. “Shut up,” he says instead, and pretends that he just made a good point. Loki snorts gently.

Thor is looking their way, but he does not greet either of them. It’s awkward as hell, so Tony pretends that nothing is happening.

“Let’s keep going,” Steve says.

He leads the way to the stairwell and they follow behind silently. It’s never a picnic when they go up against Hydra, but usually their particular brand of gallows humor cracks the tension. Tonight is different—everyone is silent and on edge.

On the next floor down they find Sam and Wanda who are seated dejectedly next to an unrecognizable corpse, badly burned and cut up by glass.

“Fuck,” says Tony, rushing forward to kneel by the body. “Who is it?”

Sam shakes his head. “Don’t know. Found ‘im. Tried to save ‘im. Couldn’t.”

He looks dazed, not quite there. Flashbacks, maybe. God knows Tony is fighting them off, and he isn't even a soldier. Steve rushes forward and pulls Sam to his feet, turning him away from the corpse on the floor. Bucky walks forward to help Wanda up and does the same thing.

Tony checks for a staff badge. What remains of the uniform indicates that this is part of the security team, but the badge is melted too badly for a name to be read, and the face is just… there’s almost nothing there. They’re going to have to identify by dental records. Tony is caught between grief and fury.

The smell of the charred flesh is familiar, bringing him back to the Humvee and those dead soldiers. Kids, really.

He doesn’t realize he’s hyperventilating until Loki reaches down and touches the side of his neck. “Enough, Tony. He will be honored and grieved in due time, but now we must move forward to protect the living.”

“I’m gonna kill them all,” Tony vows.

“Hush,” Loki says, grabbing Tony’s elbow and pulling him upwards.

The rest of the floors are cleared slowly but steadily, and there are no other fatalities, but Tony is in a daze. He’s dissociating. Loki darts concerned looks at him, but Tony is numb. At least they don’t find Pepper or Hela. That means they probably weren’t in the tower after all. Tony is aware enough to be grateful for that, but that’s as close as he dips towards reality for a while.

They make it to the basement lab in peace and Tony’s thinking maybe the sorcerers have actually run away, but then in his periphery he sees the glowing red of a spell just as it’s being cast. He ducks instinctively and it hits Loki instead.

Loki grunts, staggering backwards a few steps as the spell sinks into his chest.

“No!” Tony cries, grabbing at Loki in his panic. “No…”

Loki’s eyes are closed tight in pain. When they open they are glowing bright red. “T-tony?” he slurs gently, sounding confused. 

The two sorcerers start laughing, high pitched and manic.

“We did it! We bound the god of chaos!”

Chapter Text

"'Then Hermódr rode on till he came to Hel-gate; he dismounted from his steed and made his girths fast, mounted and pricked him with his spurs; and the steed leaped so hard over the gate that he came nowise near to it. Then Hermódr rode home to the hall and dismounted from his steed, went into the hall, and saw sitting there in the high-seat Baldr, his brother; and Hermódr tarried there overnight. At morn Hermódr prayed Hel that Baldr might ride home with him, and told her how great weeping was among the Æsir. But Hel said that in this wise it should be put to the test, whether Baldr were so all-beloved as had been said: 'If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir; but he shall remain with Hel if any gainsay it or will not weep.' Then Hermódr arose; but Baldr led him out of the hall, and took the ring Draupnir and sent it to Odin for a remembrance." - Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

Tony is more introspective than people give him credit for. He knows he is mainly motivated by guilt—you’d have to be an idiot not to see that, and Tony isn’t an idiot.

Tony and guilt have a long, tumultuous relationship. Guilt made him try harder to live up to his father’s name, guilt made him dismantle his empire, guilt led him to build Ultron, and guilt forces him to stay rooted to the spot in front of Loki while the rest of the team sensibly takes cover. Loki being controlled by Hydra is a terrifying thought indeed, but Tony’s heart is too broken to care.

He ducked the spell. It’s his fault that Loki stands there before him, wrists bound by glowing red energy; it flows into his veins and traces upwards, seeping up into and out from his eyes. Loki is vibrating with what appears to be pain.

Dr. Strange shoots a spell at the sorcerers, but it’s deflected easily by the taller one.

“With his power we’re going to rule the world. You are nothing to us now, Strange.” He makes a quick gesture with his fingers and Dr. Strange flies backwards into the wall.

“Loki,” Tony whispers.

“Get away, Tony,” Loki says, sounding drunk. “I don’t think I can protect you…”

“What are these men to you, Loki?” says Thor suddenly. Loki can’t turn to look at him, but Tony knows he’s listening. “You unwove the spell placed on Baldr by Odin, the most powerful mage in the universe. I have seen you best warriors of immense power that I could never defeat, using the quick turns of your thoughts. You cleaved the sky, you danced with the furies, you saw the first circle, and pulled the moon. What are these men to you, Loki?”

The sorcerers pull at the chains and Loki falls to his knees, hissing slightly.

“It’s too late,” the shorter sorcerer says scathingly. “He’s ours.” Another series of quick gestures and the red starts turning inky black, starting with the chains around Loki’s wrists and travelling slowly up his veins like molasses. The black traces around his eyes, welling up like tears, and he closes them.

Tony’s on the verge of a panic attack, but then Loki starts laughing, a low, poisonous sounding laugh. “Children, you are so unambitious and small.”

“You can laugh, but we own you now,” the short one says confidently.

“Own me? No, you’ve merely placed a leash on me,” Loki says, struggling to stand. Tony moves forward to help him up and Loki’s skin under his hands is so hot it burns, but Tony doesn’t let go, not even for an instant. “If you are going to leash a beast you must make sure you are powerful enough to make it heel, lest the beast drag you.”

Then Loki’s face changes; his jaw elongates and hinges wider like a snakes, his body shifts and lengthens until he is skeletal and twisted, twice as tall as he was but just as thin. Tony does step away then, but Loki doesn’t notice. His eyes are fixed on the two sorcerers who are backing away rapidly. Loki makes two quick gestures with his hands and the air pressure changes, making Tony’s ears pop.

The chains binding Loki glow red once more, the black disintegrating and flaking off like ash. Thin lines of energy trace down and crawl across the floor, attaching themselves to the sorcerers like living lasers.

Loki smiles too widely with sharp teeth that shine bright white, lethal little knives, still not nearly as sharp as the tongue behind it. “I’d tell you to run, but you can’t.” His voice sounds like something from the deepest pit of hell. He yanks the magic bonds, dragging the two struggling sorcerers towards him until they lie gibbering in fear at his feet. “I believe you should release me now, before I do something fun and… regrettable.”

They immediately break the spell binding him.

Dr. Strange swoops forward, does something magicky to them, disappearing them to some magic prison probably.

“That… good,” is all Dr. Strange says, before opening another portal and leaving.

“You’re going to my birthday party right?” Tony yells before the portal closes, but Dr. Strange doesn’t respond.

He better actually show up at my birthday party, Tony thinks sullenly.

“Well that was anti-climactic,” Clint says. “Although, this look right here is going to haunt me forever.” He waves at Loki who is still quite monstrous.

At Clint’s prompting Loki’s face and body shift back to their normal, beautiful shape. He looks at Tony searchingly, looking almost scared, so Tony grins at him and grabs his shoulder affectionately. “No one’s a match for Loki.”

Steve clears his throat. “That was great, Loki. Thank you.”

Loki nods graciously at Steve. “Pleased that I could help, although I regret that my presence is what brought them here in the first place.”

“Eh, we’re the Avengers. We’re like villain catnip,” Tony says.

“I am not an Avenger,” Loki says, frowning at Tony.

“Well, no, I guess not, but you’re still my friend,” Tony says, grinning brightly.

Loki doesn’t look pleased. “You rely on me entirely too much. It puts you in danger. I could have easily killed you this night, and yet you fluttered around me like a maiden despite my warnings.”

“I trust you,” says Tony, and apparently that’s the wrong thing to say. Loki snarls and grabs Tony by the throat, swinging him around and slamming him down against a nearby table.

“Wow, flashback,” Tony wheezes, kicking at Loki’s legs half-heartedly.

“Get. Off. Him,” Clint says.

Loki and Tony look back to see that the entire team has crowded around them (apart from Thor who stands off to the side, looking exasperated).

Loki bares his teeth in a feral approximation of a smile. “You see, Tony? Your real friends have enough sense to be scared of me. You would learn well from them.”

“I trust you,” Tony says again.

Loki squeezes harder, but Tony doesn’t panic. It’s strange, anything that restricts his breathing sends him straight into heart palpitations, but Loki’s hand is large and warm, the skin calloused in places, soft in others, and Tony isn’t scared even a little. Loki gazes at Tony, wonderment and anger battling their way across his face. “Fear me,” he says, an edge of desperation in his voice.

“No,” says Tony, reaching up a hand to place it gently against Loki’s cheek. Loki reels back like he’s been slapped and Tony sits up.

“You are pathetic,” Loki spits, and it hurts even though Tony knows Loki is only doing this because he’s scared. “I was hospitable to you for mere months, and you are ready to discount years of enmity? Are you suicidal or merely stupid?” Loki walks closer, jabbing Tony’s chest with a sharp finger. “You are like a dog that is kicked repeatedly and yet still wags its tail when offered the smallest scrap of affection. That is what you are to me, a dog, a small pet that will die and be replaced by another in due course.”

Loki looks triumphant, certain that he has reduced Tony to a pile of ashes.

Tony raises an eyebrow and snorts. “Yeah, okay, if that’s what you want to go with, then I’m a dog. I’m loyal and trusting, and maybe a little stupid, but I’ll protect you.  I’ll miss you when you go, and I’ll celebrate when you return. I’ll try to impress you because I want you to like me. Because I’m your dog. You think I'm ashamed?”

Loki is distressed, eyebrows slanting upwards and eyes glimmering with unshed tears. “You are a fool.”

“Well I’m your fool now, so you better take care of me. Feed me, take me for walkies, get my nails clipped, rub my tummy,” Tony says flippantly.

“Jesus Christ, Tony,” Clint says. “Just don’t hump his leg where I can see it.”

“Can I do that thing where I pretend to throw the ball, and you chase after it, but I still have the ball in my hand?” Bucky asks.

Thor is watching Tony, his expression soft.

“Why are you letting him do this? Do you not care for him?” Loki asks the team.

“Tony does what he wants,” Natasha says. “Although, if I ever see you touch Tony like that again I will end you.”

Loki actually looks like he considers that a viable threat.

“All of you are insane,” Loki says. He leaves without a backward glance, and Tony bites his lip anxiously. Did I lay that on too thick? he wonders.

The clean-up efforts are already underway, and EMTs have turned the lobby into a first aid station, taking care of the minor injuries. The power is easily fixed, and after that Tony is at a loss. He sweeps a couple offices, trying to be useful, but he isn’t needed here. He escapes to the roof to have an existential crisis.

What the hell is he doing?

Loki is right in some ways. It’s stupid that a few months of kindness could undo every horrific thing that Loki has ever done to Tony over the past few years. Hell, kindness? Loki kidnapped Tony. So what if it was the most fun that Tony’s had in a long time? So what if Loki is smart, funny and interesting? It’s still all wrong and horrible and bad.

And I wanted it to continue, Tony thinks. I didn’t ever want it to end.

Tony is definitely insane.

He wanders back inside eventually, when the pink tinge of morning is visible over the horizon. “Sir, Loki requests your presence in his bedroom,” Friday says.

“What, he’s not asleep yet?” Tony asks, lifting his head and blinking blearily. He doesn’t want to see Loki right now. He’s feeling very confused and vulnerable.

Tony can feel Friday rolling her non-existent eyes. “He seemed conscious when he was speaking to me, sir. Should I ask him?”

“Don’t sass me,” Tony says, sighing and standing up. “Tell Loki… tell Loki that I’m asleep.”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony takes a quick shower before bed, trying not to think about Loki for once. It’s difficult to break a bad habit. Tony draws a little horned helmet in the condensation on the mirror, then wipes it away with his hand. His self-loathing is endless, if he could hook it up to a turbine he’d be able to solve the energy crisis. He throws the towel in the hamper and walks out into his bedroom, buck naked.

Loki is sitting on his bed, staring at him with a feral smile.

“You should teach your robot to lie better,” Loki drawls.

Tony squeaks and covers himself with both hands. “Get out.”

“I would speak with you,” Loki says.

“I’m a dog, so what’s the point? Woof woof, I don't speak English,” Tony says, more than a little petulantly. He wasn’t offended by the comparison, not really, but he’s annoyed that Loki is smirking at him and sitting on his bed like he belongs there. Or, maybe not annoyed, but very something. Either way, he doesn’t want to be naked in front of Loki.

“If you were a dog you’d be easier to train,” Loki says, frowning at Tony.

Tony shrugs. “Maybe I’m a Chihuahua.”

“You befriended me, despite being my captive,” Loki says, standing up and prowling closer.

“Well, no point in antagonizing the guy that feeds you and takes you on field trips,” Tony says, shifting back a little.

“You rescued me, despite owing me no debt,” Loki says. The distance is getting shorter. Tony’s back is nearly to the wall.

Tony clears his throat. “I didn’t want anyone else to kill you before I got a chance.”

Loki smirks, taking another step forward. “You bound me to you, even though you were so close to finally being free of me.”

“It was revenge, I thought it was the best way to piss you off,” Tony says, a little breathlessly. His hands are the only thing covering his junk, and his junk is starting to become interested in the proceedings. It’s gonna be hard (hah) to stay covered for much longer.

“You needlessly expend your not inconsiderable resources for my benefit, and you aren’t upset that I called you my pet.” Loki is close enough to touch now. “What should I conclude from all this?”

“That I’ve got the worst case of Stockholm syndrome ever recorded?”

Loki closes the distance between them, his hand curling up against the side of Tony’s neck and angling his head upward. “Do you want me, Stark? I thought that I was a fool, that there was no hope that you… but I can’t… I can think of no other reason for your behavior except that you must want me.”

Yup, hands not really enough to cover things securely at this stage. “I want you, but that’s not why I did all that stuff.”

“Why then?” Loki asks, mouth so close to Tony’s they’re sharing the same warm breath.

“Because you’re my friend,” Tony says.

Loki hisses slowly and takes a step back. “Friend. I am friend to no one.”

Tony sighs, erection wilting sadly. “You accepted my friendship before. What’s changed?”

“I accepted the pretense of your friendship. I didn’t think you meant it,” Loki says, frowning. “You confuse me.”

“It’s really straight forward,” Tony says. “You are my friend, and also I would like to fuck you. But even if we never make the beast with two backs, I want to be your friend.”

Loki shakes his head. “Fool.”

Then he disappears.

“I’m really, really confused,” Tony says. He looks down at his junk. “I guess it’s just you and me now, buddy.”

Why is this his life?

Chapter Text

"Then Hermódr rode his way back, and came into Ásgard, and told all those tidings which he had seen and heard. Thereupon the Æsir sent over all the world messengers to pray that Baldr be wept out of Hel; and all men did this, and quick things, and the earth, and stones, and trees, and all metals,--even as thou must have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into the heat. Then, when the messengers went home, having well wrought their errand, they found, in a certain cave, where a giantess sat: she called herself Thökk. They prayed her to weep Baldr out of Hel; she answered:

Thökk will weep | waterless tears
    For Baldr's bale-fare;
Living or dead, | I loved not the churl's son;
    Let Hel hold to that she hath!

And men deem that she who was there was Loki Laufeyarson, who hath wrought most ill among the Æsir." -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

The thing that happened in the bedroom last night was awkward. Very awkward. Tony is expecting Loki to pretend it never happened, and maybe even to avoid him for a few days. It’s what Tony would do.

No luck on either front.

“So when did you first realize that you wanted to have me?” Loki asks, spearing a piece of cantaloupe at breakfast the next morning.

Tony chokes on his coffee. “I thought… isn’t the etiquette after this sort of thing to pretend it never happened?”

Loki looks incredulous. “Why would I do that? I’m fascinated and I want to know more!”

Tony chuckles, filled with a potent mix of mortification, affection, and irritation. “You’re a narcissist. I’m not going to let you dissect my feelings for your own, weird pleasure.”

Loki drops it, but now that he is mobile he never leaves Tony's side, even attempting to join him in the bathroom unless Tony sets a firm boundary. Tony almost wishes Loki was bed ridden again, almost. But then he sees Loki wince every now and again and clutch his still healing wound, when he thinks Tony isn’t looking. Tony berates himself. No, he’d suffer mortification and irritation of the highest degree rather than watch Loki suffer immobilized in pain and boredom.

 Tony has a lot of meetings with lawyers to go to, still dealing with the aftermath of his disappearance. It’s similar to when he got back from his fun Ten Rings summer camp, but less stressful because Tony’s been here before. He knows how to spin things, how to answer questions, how to please the stockholders and make sure everyone is happy again. Loki attends these meetings in disguise, posing as Tony’s PA.

Everyone who knows Tony knows what being Tony’s PA means. They all assume that Loki is Tony’s new boy toy, and size him up accordingly, looking for weaknesses to exploit. Loki smiles like a lamb, but his eyes sparkle like a wolf’s. Predators recognize other predators, so they leave him alone.

“This is boring,” Loki complains. “Take me somewhere interesting. I took you to interesting places.”

“You made me clean sewers once,” Tony reminds him. “Oh, remember that time we were orderlies and that lady vomited on me?”

“Better days,” Loki says wistfully.

Tony smiles, agreeing despite himself. “Okay, what do you want to do, then?”

Loki looks out the windows at the city, expression pensive. “There is something, but…”

“Anything,” Tony says immediately. “Whatever it is, if I can, and if it doesn’t involve killing innocent people.”

Loki smiles at him, but it’s sad. “Give me time. There is something I want—something I must do, but I need to prepare. Three days and I will ask you again.”

Loki disappears to his room and refuses to see Tony. Eventually Tony goes to find Hela, which has become his habit whenever Loki is being difficult.

“Have you seen him?” Tony asks Hela.

Hela looks so much like her father sometimes that is takes Tony’s breath away. She has Loki’s eyes (or eye, Tony corrects). “My father is not an easy man to love, Mr. Stark. Do you love him?” she asks instead of answering his question.

Tony inhales sharply. “This is not a conversation I expected to have with you.”

Hela just stares at him. Eventually Tony says “I don’t know.”

Hela nods. “Ask him about frost giants, when he emerges from his chrysalis. See if you can come up with an answer then. It will be very important.”

Well, that doesn’t bode well.

Three days pass and Loki finally arrives at Tony’s door in the middle of the night. Tony brings him inside and sits him down, gives him a drink.

“Tell me about the frost giants,” Tony says, sitting next to him.

Loki huffs, amused. “My daughter talks too much.”

Tony is used to jumping in with clever quips when tough conversations are happening. Psychological protection; if you’re making jokes then the serious topics don’t feel so serious, and the stakes are lower. Instead, Tony gives Loki the silence and space that he needs to prepare to answer. It’s like wearing a skin that doesn’t fit, but Tony bears it out.

“I told you once in so many words that I have no regrets about anything that I’ve done. It wasn’t entirely true,” Loki says, holding a hand up as Tony opens his mouth. “I stand by what I said about what I did here, those many years ago. I came to conquer, and sacrifices in pursuit of victory are honorable. There was another world, though, where the sacrifices I made were not honorable. I slaughtered the frost giants and there was no point to it other than the sick satisfaction of my rage. I didn’t even really care about them, as a people. I didn’t want to rule them, I just wanted them erased. I was mad at Odin and Thor. Mad at myself more than anything. Those deaths I do count as dishonorable. It is a mark on my soul.”

Loki stands up and walks to the window, placing his hand against it.

“I had visited their land before, many times. Only ever to spy or to fight. I’d never gone to learn anything about them. They were inferior. In my world we believe the frost giants are beneath us, beneath any regard. We took their power because we were afraid of them, and then we mocked them for their weakness. I called your world primitive, Tony, because I know from experience what primitive minds look like. Asgard is worse than Midgard though, I have discovered—at least Midgard tries to change.”

He turns to look at Tony.

“I returned to Jotunheimr after our argument because I realized that I had lied to you. I did have regrets. I tried to… I tried to make amends in my way, but as soon as I stepped foot on their world they bound me. I had no chance to explain my intentions, and you stumbled upon the result. I had resigned myself to die, but I… I didn’t mind. It seemed right.”

“You wanted to die,” Tony says. His heart hurts.

“Didn’t you?” Loki asks curiously. “When you saw the fruit of your labors, didn’t you want to die?”

“Yes,” Tony says. “But I realized it wasn’t the right thing to do. After I fixed what I did, I could die if they wanted me to, but not before.”

Loki nods. “Exactly. There is something I must do, something I must return. I need you to come with me.”

Tony doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Of course.”

Loki looks taken aback. Tony is keeping a secret tally of all the times he’s managed to put that look on Loki’s face--it's a satisfyingly large number.

“You don’t even know the risks.”

“Death, dismemberment, dishonor. I know the risks,” Tony says, waving off Loki's concern.

Loki exhales, blinking rapidly. “I’ve done nothing to deserve your loyalty. Nothing. I want everything you offer me, but I know I shouldn’t take it. Do you understand how maddening it is?”

Tony walks forward slowly, telegraphing his movements so that Loki can stop him if he needs to. He wraps his arms around Loki and is pleased when this contact is allowed. “Loki, it’s all yours whether you accept it or not. I know what you are, I know roughly the extent of what you’ve done. I’m standing with you anyway, because I think that you care about what’s right and wrong. Because I think that you have a moral code.”

Loki squeezes his eyes shut and finally wraps his arms around Tony, pulling him close. “I want to keep you. Odd, infuriating little man that you are.”

“Keep me then. I’m yours,” Tony says.

I love him, he thinks, and tries to remember when it happened. For Tony, love has always been like sinking into a hot bath. The shock of heat at the beginning, muscles slowly warming and relaxing, and then finally the water cools off. Time to get out of the bath. But with Loki love is like being slowly boiled. He is the frog in the pot, not thinking to hop out until too late because he couldn’t perceive the change in the temperature. Slowly, slowly boiling.

Or maybe this love is like a sunrise. You stare at the horizon, and the changes are so subtle you don't even notice them, until suddenly you are dazzled by the sun.

Loki sighs. “The universe is a joke, and I am the butt of that joke.”

 

"What do you mean?" Tony asks.

"It doesn't matter right now. Get your suit Tony, I want to leave for Jotenheim. I’ve been preparing, and my courage will only last so long.”

“Great subject change. We’re talking about this when we get back,” Tony says.

“That presupposes that we will return. If I’m lucky I will die on the battlefield,” Loki says drily.

“God you’re funny.”

Tony gets suited up and Loki opens a portal.

“I’m able to disguise our presence for a brief time. It will hopefully allow me to get close enough to subdue their force,s if I must, long enough to do what I must do. If the spell breaks, if they come to attack, be prepared to fight.”

Tony nods. “Got it.”

They walk through the portal, side by side.

Fucking cold as fuck. “When we get back I’m getting in the hottest shower I can get,” Tony vows.

“I believe I will join you,” Loki says, laughing a little when Tony chokes on his own spit in surprise.

Tony wonders if Loki knows it sounded like he wanted to take a shower together. Was that what he meant? Oh my gaaaaahd, Tony thinks, brain boiling in his own head.

They walk in tense silence for a while, while Loki searches for something, shielding his eyes and gazing off into the distance. Eventually Loki finds what he’s looking for, a little “Ah” of recognition curling up and away from his mouth, foggy white in the freezing dark.

It is a giant crater, almost the size of the Grand Canyon. “Behold my great work,” Loki says dully. “Once this was the last remaining great kingdom of the Jotun. It was here that I aimed the bifrost. I intended to bore to the center of their world and blow it apart, killing every Jotun in the process. Well, most every Jotun.” Loki looks down deprecatingly at his hand, which is starting to turn blue.

“Here is where we will stand,” Loki says. “Wait behind me while I summon them.”

Tony wants to protest, but he doesn’t. He dutifully stands behind Loki, because this is about making amends. Tony knows what it’s like to owe that kind of debt. Loki deserves a chance to make his payment.

In very little time the giants come silently out of the cold dark blue, hundreds of them. Tony tenses up, but Loki rolls his shoulders a little, stance going loose. Time for a show, Tony thinks.

The crowd stops a little ways off. One giant breaks away from the group and steps forward. “Laufeyson,” he spits. “You return for your execution willingly?”

“We both know that particular axe already fell,” Loki says. Tony frowns in confusion, but Loki keeps talking. “I am here to make what little amends I can. I nearly destroyed your planet, but let’s be honest, it wasn’t exactly thriving to begin with.”

Angry murmurs from the crowd, but no one steps forward. The leader smiles, but not in a friendly way. “And who is responsible for that?”

“Odin,” Loki says, shrugging a shoulder. “Asgard would have peace with you, but Odin is a fool for thinking there can ever be peace where there is inequality. I came here for a noble purpose, but you bound me before I could speak. I will speak now. As reparation to you, and to my true father whom I knew only as an enemy, I would return your power. But you must swear to never again go to war. You may defend yourselves as you like, for I wouldn’t see your people suffer unduly. But never again will your people live as warriors.” Loki makes a complicated motion with his hands, and suddenly he is holding a chest that glows bright blue. Each of the frost giants collapses to their knees. “Will you swear it will be as I have decreed?”

‘Yes,” the largest giant croaks, eyes welling with tears. “We will never war with another land, we will only defend ourselves when needed, and live as peaceful people. Please, please return the casket to us.”

“You are bound, as are all who live in this land,” Loki says. The bond is gold and it arcs out from Loki, covering the whole land before settling in and disappearing. Loki hands the casket to the largest giant. “Take with my blessing, and my regret for my actions.”

The crowd erupts into a joyous cacophony as soon as the casket passes from Loki to their leader. He holds it above his head triumphantly, then lowers it as he turns back to Loki.

“You will never be welcome in this land, Laufeyson,” the giant says.

He turns and holds the casket aloft once more, and suddenly…

Where there was darkness now there is light, and the land transforms. It glows bright, like diamonds, like stars, glittering, glittering endlessly like the ocean. It’s almost too bright. Loki inhales sharply as beauty wraps itself around every inch of the land before them.

“You see what you could have been a part of,” the giant says, turning back. “Know that this was your heritage, and what you almost destroyed. Now go. We will not pursue. You have paid your debt, as long as you do not return.”

The giant steps back into the crowd, who is still cheering and weeping. Loki turns away and opens a portal, and Tony follows him through, back into his apartment. They were gone for maybe an hour and there was no fighting, but it still feels like they just fought a battle.

Loki watches as Tony removes his suit, expression unreadable. Tony doesn’t know what to do. Tries to think about what he’d want.

He’d want to be distracted, if it was him. He decides to take a chance.

Tony reaches a hand out to Loki, who allows him to gently grasp the side of his neck, thumb tracing gently over a sharp cheekbone. “Come have a shower with me,” Tony says. “And then let me take you to bed.”

“Yes,” Loki says quietly.

When Tony allowed himself to imagine this, their first time was always... apocalyptic. Desperate, depraved, pornographic--broken furniture, bruises, blood. It just seemed like that. Maybe he was reading too much into the leather.

The reality is so different. They undress together but they don’t spend much time exploring new territory. Loki runs an appreciative hand along Tony’s left flank, but his touch is not charged, it doesn’t leave Tony shaking with want. The touch is grounding. As though they’ve already made love a million times, and this touching of skin is for comfort rather than seduction. Tony runs a hand across Loki's chest and stomach, and Loki smiles gently.

In the shower they wash each other’s hair, taking turns to enjoy a scalp massage. Again, it’s comforting rather than sexual. Tony feels exhausted suddenly and he leans against Loki, face pressed up against his chest. He listens to the strange heartbeat and smiles. “Your heart beats differently from mine. Did you know?”

Loki makes a noise of mild interest. “I forgot, if I did. I suppose it makes sense that we are not entirely physiologically similar.”

“You should listen to my heart,” says Tony.

“Mm, I shall when we are in bed. It will be easier in a prone position. I don’t think I can bend low enough to listen to your heart as we are right now.”

Tony reaches out and pinches Loki’s nipple sharply in retribution. It devolves into a slap fight, both of them giggling, until Tony almost slips and falls over. Loki grabs him and keeps him upright, and makes an executive decision to cut the shower short and move to the bed.

They lie wrapped in each other’s arms, naked skin still warm and humid from their shower. Loki makes no move to listen to Tony’s heart, and Tony makes no move to initiate anything else. This is all they want right now. Tony’s never felt something like this before. Satisfaction before release, no desire to chase his pleasure like the next high, simply a desire to be present in this moment with Loki.

Tony sits up a little, leaning over to look Loki in the eye. “I bound you to stay by my side and answer my questions, but… I don’t want anything you don’t want to give me. I never will. I release you from the oath you swore.”

Loki’s eyes widen as he stares down at his wrist, where a line of scarlet magic unravels itself and disappears. Loki looks back up at Tony quickly. “You realize that I no longer have to wait for my retribution. That I no longer have to spare your loved ones. You might have just made the biggest mistake of your life.”

Tony cups the side of Loki’s face and smiles at him. “I trust you.”

Loki surges upwards and kisses him. “Insane little fool,” Loki growls.

“Hey, not little,” Tony says, nodding pointedly down at himself where his buddy is stirring against Loki’s leg.

Loki rolls his eyes.

This is like a sunrise too: one moment they are kissing, the next they are making love.

It’s clumsy, both of them used to taking the lead. Loki accidentally elbows him in the face, and a couple times they clack teeth. There are unflattering noises from both of them, and Tony realizes he had onions at lunch and hasn't brushed his teeth at all. With anyone else Tony would be annoyed or turned off by these things, but Loki giggles adorably each time they fumble and Tony is swept along, laughing breathlessly with him as they find their rhythm. He is outside his head the entire time, lost in Loki's fond green eyes and warm mouth.

As Loki climbs to his release he laughs again, head thrown back and long neck exposed for Tony to lick and bite, pure delight pouring from him in waves. It’s one of the most beautiful things that Tony has ever seen. Tony follows after, gasping Loki’s own name into his mouth.

They lie tangled together again, shower warmed skin exchanged for sex warmed skin. Loki listens to Tony’s heartbeat and is as fascinated by the difference as Tony was. They fall asleep like this, and Tony is entirely content. He feels like this will last forever. Hopes.

But when Loki is gone in the morning, Tony isn’t surprised.

Chapter Text

"Then said Gangleri: "Exceeding much Loki had brought to pass, when he had first been cause that Baldr was slain, and then that he was not redeemed out of Hel. Was any vengeance taken on him for this?" Hárr answered: "This thing was repaid him in such wise that he shall remember it long. When the gods had become as wroth with him as was to be looked for, he ran off and hid himself in a certain mountain; there he made a house with four doors, so that he could see out of the house in all directions. Often throughout the day he turned himself into the likeness of a salmon and hid himself in the place called Fránangr-Falls; then he would ponder what manner of wile the gods would devise to take him in the water-fall. But when he sat in the house, he took twine of linen and knitted meshes as a net is made since; but a fire burned before him. Then he saw that the Æsir were close upon him; and Odin had seen from Hlidskjálf where he was. He leaped up at once and out into the river, but cast the net into the fire.

When the Æsir had come to the house, he went in first who was wisest of all, who is called Kvasir; and when he saw in the fire the white ash where the net had burned, then he perceived that that thing must be a device for catching fish, and told it to the Æsir. Straightway they took hold, and made themselves a net after the pattern of the one which they perceived, by the burnt-out ashes, that Loki had made. When the net was ready, then the Æsir went to the river and cast the net into the fall; Thor held one end of the net, and all of the Æsir held the other, and they drew the net. But Loki darted ahead and lay down between two stones; they drew the net over him, and perceived that something living was in front of it. A second time they went up to the fall and cast out the net, having bound it to something so heavy that nothing should be able to pass under it. Then Loki swam ahead of the net; but when he saw that it was but a short distance to the sea, then he jumped up over the net-rope and ran into the fall. Now the Æsir saw where he went, and went up again to the fall and divided the company into two parts, but Thor waded along in mid-stream; and so they went out toward the sea. Now Loki saw a choice of two courses: it was a mortal peril to dash out into the sea; but this was the second--to leap over the net again. And so he did: be leaped as swiftly as he could over the net-cord. Thor clutched at him and got hold of him, and he slipped in Thor's hand, so that the hand stopped at the tail; and for this reason the salmon has a tapering back." -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

Thor sometimes feels like he has been waiting for this moment his entire life. Longing for it, preparing for it. But he knows that it can mean nothing good that his heart’s fondest wish has finally been granted, because of course getting what he wants can’t ever be straight forward where his brother is concerned.

Loki is standing outside his door, shoulders hunched and expression closed off. “Thor,” he says.

Thor inhales deeply at the sight of his brother, fights the urge to pull him into a hug, and opens the door wider. “Can I get you something to drink?” he asks, because it is polite. He doesn’t yet have Loki’s permission to be a brother or friend, but he can be a gracious host.

Loki smiles a little. “Mead?”

Thor directs Loki to the least cat hair covered seat in the house, and goes to the kitchen to get two tankards. When he returns all of the cats have gathered in a semi-circle in front of Loki. Loki gazes at them with regal disinterest, and they regard him with nearly identical expressions. “Your cats are strange.”

“They are cats,” says Thor wisely.

He and Loki drink their mead in a silence that is neither comfortable nor awkward.

Loki is just as eloquent with silence as he is with words. Frigga could always read Loki’s silences, but Thor was too clumsy to notice the variations. Silence was a void to be filled. He chastises himself for being a fool, for not realizing sooner that just because Loki wasn’t speaking, it didn’t mean Thor wasn’t interrupting him.

He lets this silence last. He will prove that he is worthy of Loki’s regard again. He tries to listen to what isn’t being said.

Loki doesn’t look well. His expression is tight, body language tense, hair tangled, skin waxy, eyes dull and sunken. He is wearing wrinkled clothes—this is not necessarily unusual. When they are on the field of battle Loki will often forgo his usual fastidiousness and don the same garb daily. Off the field of battle, when Loki is troubled at home and working on some problem, he will sometimes do the same thing. But he always wears an illusion over it, smoothing the wrinkles and ridding it of stains. He always looks impeccable.

There is a smell that haunts the corners of Thor’s memory, and he closes his eyes, seeking the memory.

Younger days, incense burning on the funeral pyre, his brother Baldr borne away to Hel’s kingdom with a spear buried in his chest.

He opens his eyes and stares at Loki. He wants to speak. There is blood in his mouth from how hard he is biting into his tongue.

Loki takes pity on him.

“Have you read any Midgardian literature?”

Ah, so Loki will be taking the scenic route to the point of why he came here. This too is something Thor never had patience for before, the endless talking around the answers to his questions, everything opaque and allusory. Now he thinks he understands why Loki does it; for the first time Thor is not eager to hear Loki’s reason for being here now.

“Some. I enjoyed the works of J.R.R. Tolkien,” Thor answers cautiously.

“Did you read any of their philosophical tomes?” Loki asks with a smirk, because he knows that Thor didn’t.

But Thor smirks, because Loki doesn’t know him as well as he used to. “Yes. I read some Machiavelli. I think the titular Prince was you.”

That startles a surprised laugh out of Loki. “I’m surprised! You could never stand reading about politics, especially not such ruthless politics. How did you refrain from burning the book long enough to read it?”

Thor sighs. “There are a great many things I cannot stand that I’ve found I must develop a tolerance for. I have been a child too long.”

Loki gives him a considering look. “Did you ever read anything by Sartre?”

Thor shakes his head. “I have found I dislike French philosophers for the most part, it’s too…” Thor waves his hand in the air, unable to find the words. “I prefer the Russians.”

“Dostoevsky,” Loki guesses, with an eye roll. Thor smiles, because perhaps Loki does know him a little, still. “I read Huis Clos shortly after arriving on earth the second time, after I left Asgard. It is a short play about three people who wake up in hell to find themselves stuck in a room together, for all eternity. It spoke to me.”

“Earth is not so bad,” Thor says, though he knows that was not Loki’s point. He does it just to irritate his brother, and he smiles as Loki’s eye twitches involuntarily.

“Earth is neither here nor there. There is a line in the play—hell is other people. Succinct, no?” Loki looks away, out the window to the glittering landscape of New York City at night. He falls silent again, and Thor carefully rolls that statement over in his mind.

“Succinct and therefore difficult to parse without the context of the play,” Thor says eventually. “Why did the line speak to you?”

Loki looks surprised by the question. Perhaps he was expecting dismissal or disinterest. He is silent again, but this time he is thinking. Thor waits for his answer.

“I cannot see myself without seeing myself through the eyes of those that surround me. I am… shaped by how I am seen. I am myself, and yet I am not myself, and I can’t escape the knowledge that I exist as an object in the minds of others. A thing that is remarked on, analyzed, judged without my permission or knowledge. It burns at the back of my mind.” Loki pauses, and finishes the last of his mead. “There is a moment in the play where the man cannot stand being stuck in the room, being devoured by the gazes of the other two any longer, and he demands to be released from the room, and.. the door opens. He has his chance, but then he is too afraid to take it.”

Thor holds his breath, tries not to say anything. He remembers the conversation he had with Tony, so long ago.

“I have a chance to walk out of hell, Thor. I have a chance to escape an eternity stuck in a room with people whose minds I cannot stand to inhabit for a second longer.”

Thor’s eyes fill with tears. “Please,” he says. There is nothing else he can say.

“You know what I need you to do,” Loki says. “Please, Thor.”

Thor closes his eyes, cradles his head in his hands, and weeps. Loki rests a hand on his shoulder.

When he masters himself, he looks up at Loki. “I know that I’ve let you down before, but this time I will not.”

Loki’s relief is immediate, and he half laughs, half sobs. “Thank you, my brother.”

Thor gathers Loki into his arms, and Loki embraces him back. “I will protect Hela,” Thor says. “I will find Fen and Jor, and let them know.”

He walks Loki to the door. Loki pauses, and looks back at the cats which are still following him. “Which is named after me?”

Thor coughs a little, but doesn’t answer. Loki smirks. “I know at least one or two are named after me.”

Thor frowns, and looks down at the cats as though they betrayed him. Then he sighs. There is no need to be embarrassed any longer. “They are all named after you.”

Loki blinks rapidly, looking back at the cats. “All?”

“You have many nicknames. I could double my pride and still have enough names to name them after you.” Thor smiles at Loki fondly, remembering how Loki acquired some of those nicknames. Loki looks less amused, but he smiles a little.

“Sentimental fool,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like an insult.

“What do I tell Tony?” Thor asks. “He is attached to you.”

Loki looks up at Thor searchingly. “I…” Loki pauses, looking uncharacteristically conflicted. “You have been friends with Tony for a while. What is he… what is he like with his lovers? Have you ever seen him in love before? “

Thor snorts. “He has not had lovers since I have known him.”

Loki frowns a little. “He is a well-known playboy.”

“He was. Now he isn’t.”

Loki bites at his thumb, a nervous gesture he hasn’t indulged in for centuries.

“Tell Tony that I leave everything to him. Whatever he doesn't want of mine, he should burn it with me.”

Thor nods. “I will ensure that your will is done.”

There are so many other things that Thor wants to say to his brother, but too soon Loki leaves after embracing Thor one last time.

Thor retreats from the world. He turns off his cellphone and unplugs the TV. He hollows himself out as best as he can, severs the memories that threaten to burn his eyes with tears, works to erase his brother from his mind as best as he can, hardens his heart.

Odin comes, sooner than Thor would have expected. But he is ready. He will not fail his brother.

“Loki is dead,” Odin says, expectantly. Thor gazes up at his father.

He loved his father, once. He still does, in some ways. But Odin is cruel and twisted. It’s so strange to hold love and hate in his heart at the same time. Even when Loki was at his lowest, Thor never hated him. But Thor hates his father very much in this moment.

"He seems to do that a lot," Thor says dryly.

“Your duty to Asgard is paramount to whatever game Loki has decided to play,” Odin warns.

Thor just stares at his father.

“His role is vital. You would condemn us all? You would doom your people, just to help him thumb his nose at me?” Odin roars. Gungnir is in his hand, and he swings it around to point at Thor’s throat. “I thought your loyalty lay with your family, with your people, but I see now that you are unworthy. I will take Mjolnir from you.”

Thor smiles, and its Loki’s smile on his face. “I will take his place, if I must, but I will not weep for Loki.” Odin is incandescent with rage, but Thor feels nothing. “Goodbye, father. As my friend Tony is fond of saying: don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you.”

Odin leaves, and Thor exhales shakily.

Now that the confrontation is over, he goes to the bookstore and buys a copy of the play that Loki talked about. It is a strange play, he doesn't imagine it's entertaining to watch, but he reads it. It shakes him utterly by the time he is finished. One line in particular stands out to him, as though he's heard it read in Loki's own voice.

"I 'dreamt,' you say. It was no dream. When I chose the hardest path, I made my choice deliberately. A man is what he wills himself to be."

He remembers playing with Loki when they were children. He wanted Loki to play a maiden and submit to be rescued, and Loki refused. Thor whined and wheedled, until Loki threw a rock at him. "I won't play if I can't be what I want to be!" Loki had screamed.

Thor puts the play on the bookshelf instead of throwing it away like he wants to. He hates keeping things that make him feel bad. He very nearly ripped The Order of the Phoenix in half. But he keeps it because it is the last thing his brother shared with him, and it helps to explain a little bit of what Loki was thinking. The closest that Thor has come to understanding his brother in a long time.

"Sleep well, brother," Thor whispers. "I hope you find a better dream."

Chapter Text

"Now Loki was taken truceless, and was brought with them into a certain cave. Thereupon they took three flat stones, and set them on edge and drilled a hole in each stone. Then were taken Loki's sons, Vili and Nari or Narfi; the Æsir changed Váli into the form of a wolf, and he tore asunder Narfi his brother. And the Æsir took his entrails and bound Loki with them over the three stones: one stands under his shoulders, the second under his loins, the third under his boughs; and those bonds were turned to iron. Then Skadi took a venomous serpent and fastened it up over him, so that the venom should drip from the serpent into his face. But Sigyn, his wife, stands near him and holds a basin under the venom-drops; and when the basin is full, she goes and pours out the venom, but in the meantime the venom drips into his face. Then he writhes against it with such force that all the earth trembles: ye call that 'earthquakes.' There he lies in bonds till the Weird of the Gods."

Then said Gangleri: "What tidings are to be told concerning the Weird of the Gods? Never before have I heard aught said of this." Hárr answered: "Great tidings are to be told of it, and much. The first is this, that there shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: in that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall proceed three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over all the world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed's sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest; so it says in Völuspá:

Brothers shall strive | and slaughter each other;
Own sisters' children | shall sin together;
Ill days among men, | many a whoredom:
An axe-age, a sword-age, | shields shall be cloven;
A wind-age, a wolf-age, | ere the world totters. 

Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loose; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land." -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

 

 

Tony spends the first few lonely days after he and Loki make love carefully not panicking. Time works differently between the realms. A few days for Tony might be a few hours for Loki depending on where he is. He’s certain (absolutely certain) that he is not a one night stand. Not after everything they’ve been through. Tony’s been a one night stand (counter to popular belief Tony’s been kicked out of bed in the morning as many times as he’s kicked someone out of bed), and this doesn’t feel like that.

He spends his time remembering their time together fondly, trying to pinpoint moments that led to him falling in love, little stepping stones in the river.

Early, early on in their strange courtship the kindness that Loki showed by healing Tony’s hands had opened the doors to friendship. Loki’s humor hadn’t hurt, either, nor the exciting pace of their lives. Weirdly, perhaps worryingly, Loki’s aura of danger had drawn Tony in by feeding his thrill seeking tendencies. For a man who needs spice in his life, falling for Loki had been like falling for a Bhut Jolokai pepper. Hard to get bored when even mundane things like eating dinner or playing a game have an undercurrent of mortal peril.

But Tony knows that he’s really in love with Loki because there were moments when Loki just… shut down completely and withdrew into himself. Long, boring days where Loki would stare at the wall instead of transporting them to something fun and new. On those days Tony would take care of Loki, make food and make sure Loki ate it. He willingly monitored the life signs of another living being, without outside pressure, and without resenting it the entire time.

 Pepper got him a cactus once, and though it took a good year to die while Tony ignored it, he resented the thing the entire time, feeling a constant cocktail of guilt and apathy. Pepper never asked him to watch her cats, which he really appreciated.

Tending to Loki wasn’t exciting like dodging missiles or trying to master a new skill in less than eight hours. It was exciting in a quiet, gentle way, that Tony never knew he could appreciate. Like suddenly giving a shit about the sunrise, or the aurora borealis. Caring about another person in such a demonstrable way was a new kind of dangerous.

It takes a month before Tony starts letting himself hurt.

And then Hela arrives and it’s just… numbness, after that.

“He left everything to you, Tony,” she says gently.

“Don’t want it. Don’t need it,” he says.

Hela sighs. “At least look at what he left you. It’s all that remains of my father, and I would like to think it matters to someone besides me.”

It’s the glint of green, the reminder of Loki that sits in Hela’s face, that convinces him to go back to Hel to look through Loki’s belongings.

They arrive at the usual clearing, but Tony doesn’t feel anything. He’s very good at not feeling anything, ever since he experienced the loss of his parents so early in his life. He’ll never allow himself to hurt like that again. Never.

They walk together silently and arrive at the familiar house, home to memories that Tony is determined to forget now.

They tour the house together, looking at the shell of a life. He doesn’t want any of the art, nothing in the kitchen attracts him apart from a silver water jug that has a serpent handle. It has too many memories attached though, too many dinners sat with Loki in companiable silence, so Tony denies himself. Likewise the furniture in the sitting room attracts him, beautifully carved pieces in dark wood with gold upholstery. They sat together so many nights, reading in silence or yelling at each other amiably.

There is nothing in their bedrooms that Tony wants, apart from Loki’s hairbrush. He doesn’t even touch it, but he looks at it. Carved from ivory, a stalking wolf hunches low on the handle.

They walk through the workshop, and it’s here that Tony finally finds something he is forced to take. The arc reactor, glowing faintly green, sits on the worktable. He tells himself that he’s taking it because it would be dangerous not to (and that’s true), but a part of him knows that if he isn’t careful he will be gazing longingly at the green glow every night when sleep fails to find him. That is for future Tony to think about, so present Tony tucks the reactor into a pocket of his coat and tells Hela he’s ready to go home.

“Don’t burn it with him,” Tony says, when Hela asks if that’s what he wants. “I don’t want this to burn yet. Maybe someday, but leave it for now.”

It’s his property, so Hela does as he asks. What strange evidence Tony now possesses to show Loki’s affection. It’s good to know that the love was reciprocated, in a hollow, colorless sort of way.

Tony mostly stays to his room. This depression is a new animal—he is functioning completely fine. He showers every day, eats regularly, take an interest in his appearance and the general upkeep of his rooms (not that that means he’s cleaning anything, it just means he’s letting the cleaning staff in to actually do their jobs). He signs paperwork when Pepper asks him to, attends board meetings, goes on missions with his team when a threat requires their attention. Functioning completely fine.

But he doesn’t smile or laugh, he doesn’t tease or abuse his friends. He doesn’t do anything when he gets home. He is awake and alive for a normal amount of hours each day, no longer visited by ideas that force him awake to create in the lab. He doesn’t go to the lab at all, actually, because the arc reactor is in there, glowing green in the darkness. He sees it behind his eyelids.

There’s a memorial service at some point, back in Asgard. Thor extends an invitation, but Tony declines. Instead, he and Hela travel to the ocean to scatter Loki’s ashes.

“Is there really a huge, world eating serpent in there?” Tony asks, looking out over the water.

Hela snorts. “You are asking about Jormungand?”

“Yeah.”

“My brother is not so large, nor do I think he resides in these waters any longer. I have not seen him since my coronation.” The green of her eye changes shades depending on the light. In cold florescent light it is poisonously green. In warm sunlight it is the green of the forest, of something living and thriving in the wild. Here, at the edge of the ocean, it is a blue green that reminds Tony of the earth from space.

The spider that lives in her empty eye socket, the one that he has taken to calling Charlotte, circles towards a fly that has blown into its web, lost on a sea breeze. It wraps the meal efficiently.

Life in death. It’s beautiful, like Hela is. Like Loki was.

“What was he like?” Tony asks, referring to her brother.

After a short, thoughtful silence she answers. “Lazy. Easily frightened and prone to defensive violence, unlike Fen who was just prone to violence. Fen is more like my father than Jor ever was. Though, the older I get the more I think that maybe I was wrong about that. I realize now that I never knew my family.”

Tony thinks he knows the feeling well, but he doesn’t make this about him.

Thor and Tony don’t talk about it, so much as they drink about it, silently. Very manly silence filled with cats, and cat hair, and pink feathers on the end of the string that Thor dangles morosely for his cats to attack. They are merciless.

Eventually Thor breaks the silence. “It is strange, the stories that make it back to Midgard about my world. Strange for the accuracies and inaccuracies both. Have you ever read of my brother Baldr?”

“Not really,” Tony says. “I know that Loki is supposed to have been responsible for killing him though. Holly branch, right?”

Thor smiles. “Mistletoe. Nothing so simple, nor so complicated. My father long ago made a… pact, of sorts, in order to preserve our world. We live eternally but cyclically, like the seasons passing. Spring, summer, winter, fall, over and over. We rise, we thrive, we decline, and we die. The mechanism for this cycle on your world is the earth tilting on its axis away from the sun. The mechanism on my world for this cycle is Loki. He is the axis on which we tilt; he is our chaos, our element of change, our death and rebirth.”

“Hela seems to think that no one else knows that apart from a few of you,” Tony says.

Thor nods. “Aye. She’s never spoken to anyone else apart from her father about it, so she doesn’t know that there are seven of us. Myself, my father, Loki, Hela, Jormungandr, Fenrir, and Heimdall. Sometimes more know, or discover the truth, but we are the only ones who are born knowing that we have lived before. We don’t always regain our memories, but we know we are the only ones who can keep the cycle going. There are… things we must do, when our world is about to end. We must all be alive at the same time, so we have been given power over each other. Strings we can pull to bring each other back from Hela’s kingdom.”

Thor refills their drinks while Tony waits to hear what this has to do with Baldr.

“My brother Baldr used to be one of the seven, before Hela. He… grew tired, and asked my brother Loki to help him find a more lasting peace.” Thor picks up one of his cats, a large orange beast that purrs loudly as soon as he’s settled on Thor’s lap. “It wasn’t a holly branch that slew Baldr, it was a bone of Bor, sharpened into a spear. Magic is genetic. Those with the strongest genetic ties have the least amount of power over each other. Balder’s body couldn’t heal the wound caused by the bone of such a close ancestor, so he died. But we all pulled our strings. Except for Loki.”

“Because he was helping Baldr escape…”

“And he was punished for it disproportionate to the nature of the crime. It happens every now and again that one of the seven fades from existence forever. But it had never been done intentionally before. The nature of the pact is unknown to me, but Odin tried his best to make sure Loki never tried such a stunt again.”

Thor smiles grimly. “He never thought he’d have to worry about such treachery from me. My brother came to me, shortly before his death, and asked me for my help. I refused to pull my string.”

Tony inhales shakily, filled briefly with all the anger and grief he’s been trying so hard to suppress. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to know what it means when I say that Loki is free, and that it is good you do not mourn him. I do not mourn him either.”

Tony isn’t drunk, and he realizes he doesn’t want to get drunk any more, so he leaves.

When he gets back to the tower he finds himself wandering down to the lab for the first time since he placed Loki’s arc reactor there. He sees it glowing green on the workbench through the glass doors before they open. Tony is imagining the light pulsing slowly, although he knows it isn’t. The light pulses in time with Loki’s musical heartbeat.

It’s in Tony’s hand before he thinks better of it. He wishes he still had a hole in his chest, so that he could place Loki’s reactor over his heart.

He allows himself, briefly, to think of Loki.

Loki who tried to help and was punished for it every time. Loki with his dangerous eyes and gentle hands. Loki who fought him and loved him. Loki who fell and then rose again. Loki, creation and destruction.

Loki.

A single tear drips from Tony’s dark lashes and lands with a *pip* and a *hiss* upon the green glow of the reactor. Then there is a curl of smoke, a crack of thunder, and Tony is knocked to the ground by a blast of magic so powerful it breaks the glass doors into glittering dust.

He passes out.

Chapter Text

"Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa:αποθανειν θελω."  - Satyricon by Gaius Petronius.

 

Currently Faolan Whelan works as a mechanic in a remote part of West Virginia. He fixes cars, mostly, but every now and again someone will bring something else to him to see if he can fix it. Smaller things, usually, like computers or toasters, but sometimes larger jobs. Heavy farm equipment. He usually can fix it, he’s very clever and good with his hands. It’s like magic, they say. He assures them it’s just experience and instinct, and that’s the truth.

He is a tall man, quiet, but his laugh is loud and strong, and he is admired by both men and women; he is immediately well liked wherever he goes for his good looks and charisma, but everyone says they like him cause he’s funny and smart. No one ever gets a chance to dislike Faolan, because he doesn’t stay long enough in one place for anyone to see beneath his carefully constructed façade.

They call him a lone wolf and he smiles gently.

Today he is fixing a POS Nissan for a neighbor, a retired school teacher who wears pants that sit almost up as high as his nipples. Faolan has a theory that pants placement on a man are an indicator of health; young, healthy men wear their pants low, but as they age the pants sit higher and higher, until they die, and then Faolan assumes the pants are drawn up over the head and belted, for easy disposal. The school teacher has agreed to pay him $500 plus parts to fix the air conditioning. It’s not much, but Faolan doesn’t mind. Helping a neighbor builds up his reputation as a “stand-up guy” and ensures that no one pays too much attention to him.

His other neighbor, a single mother who is young and looking for stability, invites him to dinner on a weekly basis, usually when the kids are at her ex’s house for the weekend. He can smell her lust, but she’s a child to him. Although he doesn’t accept her dinner invitations, he accepts the leftovers she offers him. Her meatloaf is awful, but the peach cobbler is to die for.

(At night he goes hunting for secret monsters, the ones that hide behind the faces of church leaders, teachers, doctors, loving parents. The monsters that eat children without ever layin’ tooth to bone. He goes hunting, knife in hand.)

He doesn’t really have hobbies. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he’ll throw paint at a canvas and pretend like he’s trying to create something. Really he just likes making a mess of things. It’s more constructive than what he used to do as a child.

(The knife is for show. He doesn’t need it; he has teeth.)

He doesn’t go to church.

(Sometimes people pray to him, though. It itches, like hives.)

He has trouble sleeping.

(Nightmare or prophecy? He doesn’t know anymore. Maybe it’s always been both.)

He’s just about finished with fixing his neighbor’s car when he senses a shift in the air. He is alone in the garage and then his grandfather stands before him. He doesn’t like his grandfather. His grandfather is another secret monster, but Faolan can’t eat him yet. He’s not hungry enough for that meal.

“Who died?” he asks, uneasily. That is the only reason Odin would be standing here now.

“Your father,” Odin says.

Faolan lets out a long, mournful howl of grief. His father, fierce, strong, fast. His father who taught him how to hunt. The tears come easily and plentiful. Odin holds out a small gold chalice to his cheek and collects the tears, then leaves.

His father has died before and will die again. His father has been born before and will be born again. Ocean tide, in and out. Never the same wave twice, though, is it? He mourns each wave.

Faolan finishes fixing the air conditioning and then leaves town. He only takes the clothes on his back and the long fang he wears around his neck on a gold chain.

*

Ahote Chua is out in the field in New Mexico, studying the rattlesnake population near Santa Fe. 

He goes out into the field on his own and can spend months out there without seeing another face. He prefers that—he doesn’t like people much, although he is unfailingly polite. Still, there is a tenseness to his posture that puts others off, and their tension makes him more tense, and it’s a feedback loop of awkwardness.

He prefers snakes. No facial expressions and very clear boundaries. He watches them, they watch him, and that is extent of their interaction.

The night is cold and he feels it keenly, so he builds up a fire and huddles close, basking in the heat with his eyes closed. His evening meal consisted of a single rabbit he caught. He ate it whole, which is another reason why he likes being alone in the vast desert. He doesn’t have to hide himself, doesn’t have to pretend like he enjoys ice cream and vegetables. Here he can hunt and devour in peace. The heat of the fire is helping him digest his meal.

Ahote is a handsome man. His skin is dark and his hair is long and glossy black, tied up in a bun currently to keep it off his neck. He is tall with high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. He never seems to blink, which is another reason people are put off by him.  The only person he could spend any extended time with, that didn’t make him want to crawl out of his skin, was his father.

His father never touched him or looked at him, which Ahote appreciated greatly. No one else understood, they thought his father was rejecting him, when in fact it was the greatest acceptance he’d ever know. He and his father never needed to speak to each other, his father would just know what he needed by observing Ahote’s body language out of the corner of his eye. When Ahote left home it was a relief, really. His father never tried to find him, and that was a relief too. Ahote always preferred to remain hidden and his father respected that. Others didn’t respect his desire for isolation, but Ahote made it clear that he didn’t wish to be approached. Eventually they listened.

He senses the change in the air and he coils his magic around him, ready to defend himself. When the air settles he smells the familiar scent of his grandfather, a mix of ozone and dried blood. Ahote’s pupils dilate and he feels his mouth begin to salivate as his body prepares itself for a meal.

“I wouldn’t come any closer, Odin. I’ve been eating rabbits, mainly, so I’m a bit peckish,” he says. Ahote speaks with a lisp, his ‘s’s lacking sharpness and clarity.

Odin has brought a raven with him, which Ahote finds darkly amusing. He is no longer the little boy, scared to death of the great black wings and clicking beaks of Huginn and Muninn. Odin is over confident. “Come at me, boy. I welcome the chance to slay the great Serpent of Midgard.”

“Great, am I?” Ahote says with a smile that is not friendly. “What do you want, Corpse-father?”

“Your father is dead,” Odin says. Ahote appreciates the bluntness of the message, even if he despises the messenger.

Emotions come with difficulty to him, but Ahote does his duty and sheds a single tear for his father who loved him, and whom Ahote loved to the best of his ability. He allows Odin to approach and collect the tear in a golden goblet.

Odin leaves and takes the goblet and the great hulking bird with him.

That night Ahote sheds his skin. When the morning comes he is an olive skinned, dark haired man named Ophiuchus Marinos. He leaves New Mexico and the rattlesnakes behind, taking only the clothes on his back and the single gold scale that he wears on a chain around his neck.

*

Hela chooses to live in a small cottage, similar to the one her father resides in. She is still a monarch, though, and Odin shows his respect at the door by waiting for an invitation to enter.

“Granddaughter,” he says, as warmly as he can manage. Hela knows that she is his favorite among Loki’s children. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

“Grandfather,” she says, with measured warmth. “Would you like to come in for tea?”

“I would,” he says, surprising her. She knows why he’s here. She didn’t expect him to stay longer than necessary.

The shadows that congregate in her home amass themselves long enough to serve tea, and then fade back into the walls and beneath the furniture. She and Odin sit down across from each other and she pours for them both. There is a plate of madeleines and Odin takes one, biting into it with interest.

“You and your father are both so fascinated by the Midgardians,” he says. “Their pastries are not bad, I will admit. Delicate flavor, satisfying texture.”

“My Uncle is fascinated too,” Hela says. She enjoys the small annoyed twitch at the corner of Odin’s eye that betrays his annoyance. Jane was a very interesting development, and now Thor will not take the throne. Hela watches all this from her realm and is amused by the drama. Real Housewives of Asgard, she thinks.

“You yourself have taken a human lover, have you not?” Odin asks. Hela is alarmed that he has been paying attention enough to notice Pepper, not that she’s worried he intends to do anything.

“I’m surprised you have taken an interest,” she admits.

Odin smiles, but it is a brittle thing. “My family doesn’t seem to want to tell me anything these days. I’ve had to resort to spying to stay appraised of new developments.”

If Hela loved her grandfather she might say something, offer counsel or comfort. But she doesn’t love her grandfather, so she sips at her tea.

He sighs. “I don’t understand why. I don’t know what I’ve done.”

Hela places her cup into its saucer. She realizes that there is a spark of anger in her breast, a small ember left over from a great fire that she has almost managed to extinguish. Anger happens when you care, and Hela tries very hard not to care about her grandfather.

“Perhaps you should consult Huginn and Muninn,” she says coldly. “I have what you came for. Give me a brief moment to retrieve it for you,” she says. She collected her tears in a glass vial. She refuses to cry in front of her grandfather.

She hands him the vial and he leaves.

*

Heimdall has no love for Loki, but he holds a great deal of sorrow. He sees and remembers everything, and that means that even if he doesn’t love Loki, he understands more than he wants to. When Odin comes to him, Heimdall is already crying.

*

Odin cries for Loki, great wracking sobs that leave his throat sore. He screams, he beats his breast, he rips at his hair. He chose this. He chose all of this. Every choice drags him deeper and deeper into misery, and he doesn’t know how to stop his descent.

Chapter Text

"APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."

-The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

Odin arrives in Hel via the bifrost and begins walking slowly through the forest, unannounced and unescorted. If you saw him in this moment you might not even know he is a king. You might think he was simply an old man, burdened by the troubles that any old man is burdened with. You wouldn’t know that he has ended as many lives as he’s saved--almost exactly. You wouldn’t know that he has devoted his entire life to mastering magic, nor would you know that he has willingly sacrificed his vitality and sanity in order to further this goal. You wouldn’t know so many things, but Odin would know them. That is how Odin likes it. Secrets are his power, and his downfall.

Here, take a moment and examine Hel briefly while Odin makes his silent journey through the darkened wood.

Like Asgard, Hel can be thought of as a large flat disc. Unlike Asgard, this disc is infinite. It is covered by a dark and twisted forest which is filled with many creatures. The land looks dead upon first glance, but glance again and see that it is very much alive. Certainly more alive than Asgard.

There are the blood wolves, beautiful, monstrous creatures made of mist and rage, which revel in violence and sing to the moon when the clouds clear; silver owls, clever birds of prey that cut through the air like knives and feed on shadows; ember beetles, the ghosts of dead fires, which flit through the forest aimlessly; hollow deer, pale antlered creatures that stalk you silently and are visible only out of the corner of your eye; singing frogs, which steal the voices of your loved ones and torment you.

There are also shadow wraiths, which live in roots and delight in confusing travelers by moving the trees around. They are astonishingly loyal to Hela.

There are other creatures besides, of course, but we cannot see them now.

Odin had meant Hela to be a puppet monarch, but he knows now he miscalculated when he allowed her to learn politics at her father’s knee. Odin knows the knife will be delivered into his back with a smile and a cheeky wink, and he will not see it coming now matter how he schemes. But it’s not time for that yet, and he is not so feeble. He knows he is safe enough to make his way to the field of stars.

Hel boasts many impressive and important wonders, any of which would have merited Odin’s decision to conquer the realm; the Endless River, with no source and no end; the Labyrinth of Oros, a winding den that once was home to a great and terrible serpent. The labyrinth holds many treasures, including the corpse of the great serpent himself; somewhere, in the infinite forest, lies the First Circle. But Odin is here to visit what is arguably the most important wonder of Hel, known as the Field of Stars.

When Asgardians die their souls do not fade away into the great oneness to be reclaimed by the universe, recycled and redistributed, like mortal souls are. Odin ensured that the souls of his people endured, whether for good or ill. Their souls depart and then accumulate here, little glittering spheres of light that nestle into the fertile loam of the clearing. When Ragnarok comes again the field will become bright like the sun. When Odin’s soul joins the rest, Hela will weep for Asgard with her dying breath, and they will all be reborn again. This was Odin’s wish, for Asgard to live forever, for its people to live forever, and the Norns saw fit to grant it to him. He wonders if it was actually a punishment.

But he can’t stop now. If the cycle breaks, if his people die, it will be as though it were by his hand. His pride will not allow it. He perseveres and waits.

He arrives alone at the edge of the field and looks out over the vast swath of land. It looks like an ocean from where he stands. Here and there the lights of souls, the souls of his people, wink and dance in the darkness. In this moment, in this place, there is a peace that is dangerous. Here, Odin can almost set aside his pride and arrogance. Here, Odin is tempted to stop the wheel from spinning (he couldn’t, but he is tempted to dream he can).

A breath, in and out. In, he is alone; out, and Fen is standing next to him. A breath, in and out. In, they are alone; out, they are joined by Jor. A breath, in and out. In, the three of them stand facing the field; out, Hela stands before them, robed in dark velvets and silks.

Their presence is unexpected. Resurrections before Ragnarok are few and far between, and Loki’s children have never attended the peculiar rite. Odin experiences a moment of trepidation, but he is too old and stubborn to be cowed.

“Welcome,” Hela says, and Odin knows this is meant mostly for her brothers. Fen moves forward to bite her firmly on the cheek, which she allows with a pleased smirk. Jor doesn’t move to embrace her, but he makes eye contact with her, which is enough for him. Odin experiences a moment of longing, a memory from before when there was no poison between them. It feels like vertigo. He blinks and sees them as children, suddenly. They turn to stare at him and each of them look so much like Loki that his breath catches.

Thor is the son of his blood, but Loki is the son of his mind. That is why they will ever be at odds, Odin realizes. He hates himself too much to love Loki.

He blinks again and they are grown, and grown distant. He pulls himself together.

“Come,” he says gruffly, and leads the way along the winding path that traces its way through the field.

Over time souls come to rest in the same places, like water settling into grooves in the rock. Loki’s soul comes to rest in the very center of the field, in a rocky outcropping that lies at the bottom of a shallow depression in the land. Odin thinks it is appropriately symbolic—Loki is like a weed that grows even in the most barren of places.

They walk in silence and, though thye have never been here with the others, each stop at some unspoken signal to pay respects to Frigga. She glitters at the top of a hill that overlooks the rest of the field, the highest point of the flat land. The place that’s closest to the stars. Their path does not lead that way. They turn and head lower.

The children have never witnessed this rite before, and Odin isn’t sure he wants to share this moment. But he will not tell them to leave, because they wouldn’t listen anyway. He swallows his discomfort and climbs atop the rock. The children remain at the bottom and watch him climb, a silent and fearsome trio, beautiful like knives. Loki is incapable of making something that isn’t deadly and beautiful, Odin muses.

He focuses on his climb, feels the pull and stretch of old muscles and notes his shortness of breath, but despite his unwelcome limitations he stands atop the rock soon enough. He pulls the goblet of tears from his pocket dimension, and slows his breathing. He calls to his son.

“Loki, son of my mind, mischief maker and chaos bringer, I call thee upwards from the rock. Rise, rise again and join once more in the dance, until the weird of the gods. I charge thee to bite at our heels, drive us forward, and drag us down, so we may rise. Come forth, Loki ground shaker and wind walker, our darkness, our shame, our salvation. Rise, rise, and arise.”

Odin smiles, fearsome and mad. Thor refused his duty, as though it would halt the tide, as though he could halt Odin. Thor was struck from the circle and replaced by Frigg, and Frigg wept copiously. Nothing can stop this moment. Odin pours the tears over the ground in a thin stream, watches as the goblet pours, and pours, and pours an ocean of tears over the dead rock. The last drop dances on the rim, catching the light of the moon and throwing it, before it falls.

A breath, in and out. In, and Odin is alone on the rock; out, and Odin… is still alone. In and out, in and out.

Fen throws his head back and howls, shattering the silence and frightening Odin (though he does not show it). The howl fades away into the night, and Fen and Jor are both gone when at last it is silent again.

The rage in Odin’s breast is like the surface of deep and untouched waters. He looks down at Hela, who smiles triumphantly.

“My father is not here.”

Gungnir is in Odin’s hand before he realizes what he is doing. He strikes the rock on which he stands and cracks it clean in half. He falls as the rock crumbles, but the bifrost grabs him up and away before he hits the ground.

Odin is already striding forward as the bifrost deposits him before Heimdall. “Locate Loki’s soul immediately. This is not over yet,” he spits.

Heimdall gazes out at the universe and searches for a needle in a stack of needles, in the middle of a field of full of stacks of needles.

Chapter Text

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

- The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

 

Tony drifts back towards consciousness slowly. His senses come back online one at a time, briefly, then fade out, then come back, like flickering florescent lights. First, he becomes aware of sirens blaring and a familiar voice talking quietly but tensely. Then he becomes aware of various sensations—pain, in his palms, knees, and head; heat and weight on his back; a vague sensation of wetness on his forehead. Then his sense of smell comes back and he smells blood and something achingly familiar.

He groans and the weight shifts on his back. The vague wetness on his forehead sharpens to the silky point of a warm tongue and he becomes aware that his forehead is being licked persistently and soothingly.

A flicker and then Tony realizes the voice he's hearing is Steve’s. Tony can understand the words now.

“Loki, we need to take him to the medical wing. He’s injured and we need to make sure he’s okay. We’re not going to hurt him. Please,” Steve says, somewhere to Tony's left.

There is a wordless growl in Tony’s right ear, and… Loki? (impossible, impossible, oh god please let it be true) Presses himself more firmly into Tony, covering his whole body possessively.

Tony experiments with movement, twitching his hands, moving his head a little. He’s scared to open his eyes, in case the concussion has given him a migraine. Waves of red through his thin eyelids warn him that there are flashing lights just beyond. Instead of opening his eyes he opens his mouth.

“Friday, turn off the alarms for fuck’s sake.”

The absence of flashing light allows him to open his eyes a little. He sees Loki’s long, pale neck. Loki has resumed licking his forehead, and Tony watches how the tendons and muscles shift under that pale skin.

The absence of blaring sirens allows him to hear Loki’s breathing, which is fast and panicked, like a wild animal’s.

“Loki?” Tony asks, voice breaking a little as the reality of the moment becomes heavier. “Loki?”

Loki doesn’t respond, choosing to lick Tony’s forehead instead. “Stop, jesus, stop licking me and talk to me,” Tony says, lifting up a hand to push Loki away.

Loki immediately bites his hand, hard enough to bruise, but not hard enough to break skin. It hurts and Tony hisses. “Stop that! What the fuck?”

Tony tries to sit up, but Loki is impossible to move. Loki will not let go of his hand.

“Steve?” Tony asks, starting to feel scared. “What the fuck is happening?”

“There was an explosion in the lab. When we came down, Loki was trying to wake you up. I approached and he hit me. I think he broke my rib. That was a half hour ago and we haven’t been able to get through to him. We’ve called for Thor, but he isn’t picking up his phone.”

Tony can’t see Steve. He tries to move his head, but Loki grabs it and keeps it still, letting go of his hand again to lick persistently at his forehead.

“I feel like a chew toy,” Tony grumbles, trying for humor to distance himself from the absurdity of his life in this moment. “Get off of me, Loki,” Tony says, trying again to get up. He only succeeds in grinding into the glass on the floor beneath him, so he stops quickly. “We need Thor. Thor is the only one that is strong enough to handle Loki. Please get Thor,” Tony says. The weight on his back is making it hard to breathe, and that's starting to make him panic. He’s very, very extremely happy that Loki is somehow alive, but he needs to get up. He needs to get up now. He needs to get up, he needs to get up, he needs, he needs, he needs—

“Tony, calm down, it’s going to be okay. Tony, breathe Tony,” Steve tries to coach him through the panic attack, but it isn’t helping. Loki whines in distress, pressing impossibly closer over Tony. Tony passes out again to the sound of Loki screaming.

There is nothing.

Then there is red tinged blackness behind his eyelids.

He is aware that he is conscious. There is a beeping noise to his right…a pulse oximeter. He is reclined in a hospital bed. Someone is holding his left hand. The hand is large, rough, masculine. The room smells like ozone and cats. Thor.

Tony opens his eyes slowly and looks over without moving his head. Thor is curled up in a chair next to Tony’s bed. Thor is asleep. Tony fades back out of consciousness before he can wake Thor up to ask about Loki.

There is a dream. In the dream there is screaming.

Tony wakes up, elevated pulse screaming back at him through a machine. “Fuck,” he gasps.

He is alone in the room for a few moments, then Steve and Thor walk in wearing near identical looks of concern mixed with relief.

“Tony,” Steve says. He reaches down and grabs Tony’s shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze.

“Where is Loki?” Tony asks, trying to sit up. Thor pushes him back down gently.

“Loki is being held in the Hulk’s containment chamber for the moment. He was… unwilling to be parted from you long enough for the doctors to assist you,” Thor says.

Tony looks at Thor. “What is wrong with him? There’s something really wrong with him, isn’t there?”

Thor nods, looking miserable. “I’ve never seen him like this before, Tony. He is unable to speak, unable to understand anything. He’s not even able to use magic.”

“I want to see him,” Tony says immediately, fighting to sit up.

“Tony, you’ve got a few bruised ribs, and you’re recovering from a concussion,” Steve says, frowning at him. Tony doesn’t say anything, just stares until Steve sighs and helps Tony disengage the various wires. “Not a good idea,” Steve tries again, with no real conviction.

The walk to the Hulk’s play pen isn’t far, but the journey is painful thanks to the bruised ribs that Steve warned him about. Tony keeps quiet though, he doesn’t want Steve to pick him up and carry him back to bed. Steve will do that. Steve has done it before.

“Be prepared Tony,” Steve says gently. “He’s not the Loki we used to know.”

“He’s Loki,” Tony says. “He’s never the Loki that anyone knows.”

Tony hears Loki before he sees him. The screaming is inhuman, high pitched, full of rage and pain, an echo of his dream. Tony speeds up as much as he can, desperate to get there and see.

They walk through the doors and Tony sees Loki again for the first time.

Loki is naked. There are shreds of cloth in a corner, remnants of someone’s attempt to offer Loki his modesty. Very firmly rejected. His hair is long, much longer than Tony remembers. It is tangled, matted. Loki is covered in scratches across his face and arms.

“Where did those come from?” Tony asks, even though he knows they’re self-inflicted.

As soon as Tony speaks, Loki stops screaming and focuses on Tony, head lowered. The look on his face is…

“Tony, I think this was a bad idea,” Steve says, trying to pull Tony away from the glass. Loki focuses on Steve’s hand and a look of poisonous rage flickers across his face, before he smiles the sort of smile that promises blood.

Tony knows what is about to happen seconds before Loki moves. It’s enough time to push Steve out of the way, a quick hit to the center of his chest that knocks him to the floor and away from Tony. Loki is out of the cell in an instant, grabbing Tony close to his chest and backing away, leading them outside to the hallway.

“Loki,” Tony warns, but Loki ignores him, heaving him upwards and over his shoulder. “Loki!” Tony shouts, in pain and aggravation. “Put me down!”

Loki runs through the tower, heading upwards, until they are on the roof. Loki sets Tony down gently and looks around, keeping a firm hand on Tony’s neck.

“Loki,” Tony tries again, but Loki isn’t listening. He’s lifting his face towards the sun and inhaling the air, a look of undisguised pleasure on his face. It’s beautiful and Tony’s breath catches as he tries to memorize this moment. Loki, alive, in the sunlight.

“Loki,” Tony says again, pinching the skin on Loki’s arm sharply to get his attention. That finally does the trick and Loki looks down at Tony, hurt and confused. “I’m trying to talk to you,” Tony explains gently, willing Loki to understand. “When I say your name, I need you to look at me, that’s all. Okay?” Tony smiles and nods encouragingly.

Loki smiles back, eyes crinkling in the corner. He leans forward into Tony and bites him on the cheek. It doesn’t hurt, but it alarms Tony, who places his hands on Loki’s chest and backs away. Loki looks profoundly hurt.

“Sorry,” Tony says quickly, realizing he made a mistake. On a hunch he leans forward and bites Loki’s cheek in return, hoping to undo the damage. Loki looks much happier, so Tony files that information away.

This is so fucking weird, Tony thinks.

“Can you understand me? At all?” Tony asks, stroking Loki’s cheek tenderly. Loki tilts his head into the touch and closes his eyes, purring low in his chest. Actually purring. Tony is turned on and terrified in equal measure. “You’re scaring me, baby. I don’t know how to help you,” Tony whispers. “Please talk to me.”

The door opens behind them as Thor joins them on the roof, and Loki hisses as he pushes Tony behind him protectively.

“Loki,” Tony says, and Loki dutifully at him. So he understands at least a little, Tony thinks. “It’s alight. Let me go, please.” Tony moves out from behind Loki and ignores his whine of distress. “I am out of my fucking depth, here,” he says to Thor.

“I’ve called for Hela,” Thor says. “I’m hoping she understands what is happening. In the meantime, I think you need to return to your recovery room. Loki appears… calmer, so he can stay in there with you if you would like.”

“I don’t think we can prevent it,” Tony said. “He’s figured out the magic thing. Hulk’s cage isn’t going to hold him a second time.”

“Aye,” Thor says.

“Come on, babe,” Tony says, reaching out to take Loki’s hand. “Maybe you’ll let me disinfect those scratches too, huh?”

Loki doesn’t respond, but he allows himself to be led away by Tony, only snarling a little at Thor as they pass.

Once they are back in the room Tony calls for some medical supplies and tries to treat Loki’s wounds. The grooves are shallow, but inflamed. Tony is gentle and Loki appears content to be handled and turned whichever way Tony wants, purring as Tony pays close attention to him. “You’re like a big cat, aren’t you?” Tony says, affectionately.

Don’t enjoy this, Tony thinks. There is something wrong with Loki, don’t enjoy this. This is bad. You are bad for enjoying this. He’s vulnerable, and you’re taking advantage of it.

But Loki was dead yesterday, and today he is alive somehow. Tony can’t help it every time his heart swoops in his chest when he looks at Loki, sitting next to him on the bed, looking content and only mildly insane.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” Tony says, leaning closer to bite Loki’s cheek. Loki rumbles happily.

Tony finishes taking care of Loki and lies back down in the bed, groaning at his ribs strain. Loki curls up next to him under the covers in the narrow bed, pressing close.

Loki smells of blood, acrid sweat, and a heavy, unpleasantly animal smell that Tony associates with the zoo. Regardless, Tony presses his nose into Loki’s hair and inhales deeply.

“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” Tony whispers, wrapping his arms around Loki’s shoulders.

He falls asleep to the sound of Loki's soft breathing.

 

Chapter Text

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley 
Where the dead men lost their bones.

“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing. 
“Do
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Nothing?”
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes. 
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"

-The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

 

Tony wakes up to a low growling in his ear. Loki’s body is tense in his arms and Tony opens his eyes groggily, looking around for an intruder.

Two men he doesn’t know are standing at the foot of the bed, staring at him and Loki with unreadable expressions. Both are tall and handsome. The one on the right has longish dark hair and pale skin, and though his clothing and grooming are neat enough, he still appears ruffled somehow. Wild and untamable. The man on the left is tanned, skin copper in color. There is a tenseness in his frame, an impression of coiled energy.

“Friday?” Tony asks warily.

“Yes sir?”

The two men look up around the room, startled by the disembodied voice.

“Do you see what I see?” he asks, curiously, slightly alarmed.

“What do you mean, sir?”

“The two men at the foot of my bed?” he clarifies.

“There is no one there, sir. Shall I call a doctor for you?”

“No, leave it,” Tony says. Loki will protect him if these men mean them harm. “Nice trick, hiding from my AI’s camera, boys. Gonna have to tell me how you’re doing that. Also, who the hell are you?”

The man on the right smiles and Tony is struck by his resemblance to Loki. “Easy enough. It’s just vibrating at the right frequency. Child’s play compared to hiding from Heimdall, I’m sure my father can tell you.” He nods at Loki.

“Ah, you must be Fenrir and Yor-mun-something,” Tony says in a flash of understanding. “Loki, these are your kids. Do you recognize them?”

Tony sits up a little, wincing against bruised ribs, and gestures gently at the two men, looking at Loki’s face hopefully. Loki looks at Tony uncomprehendingly, but he stops growling when he hears his name. Instead he smiles and nuzzles his head into Tony’s neck, but he does not look at his sons.

The man on the left looks fascinated, leaning forward a little and cocking his head. “He hasn’t taken a lover in ages. You must be very interesting.” He speaks with a lisp, his s’s elongating a little strangely and taking on a soft and muffled quality. Probably the snake one, Tony thinks. Looks kinda like a snake. Expressionless and tense at the same time.

“I certainly like to think so,” mutters Tony, smirking a little. “I’m not bad in bed, either,” he throws in, because bragging never hurt.

The two men look at each other and roll their eyes.

“He’s, uh… not at his best, at the moment,” Tony says, kissing the top of Loki’s head. Loki rumbles happily. “Any idea what’s going on with him?”

Fen and Jor look at their father, then back at Tony.

“Not at his best?” Jor asks.

“Yeah, he can’t remember anything. Can’t talk, can’t use magic. Well. Won’t use magic, I guess. He used it yesterday, but normally he’s more…” Tony waves his hands vaguely.

“Can’t remember, can’t talk,” says Fen. “Sounds like a dream for him, really. Nothing good to remember and nothing good to say, anyway. I’d say this is probably the happiest he’s ever been, in any incarnation apart from his first.”

Tony is taken aback. “But… shouldn’t we be trying to fix this?”

“If you were really concerned you would be sleepless, frantic. I hope,” says Fen, grinning a little. “What do you feel, really? Are you truly worried for him, or can you sense the peace in him like we can?”

Tony looks down at Loki as best he can (Loki’s face is still buried in his neck). There is no tension in his body, no artifice. Loki lies to Tony less than he does to others, but still he lies. Now there are no lies.

“I still… I’m still worried that he can’t speak. How do I know if he understands me?” asks Tony, looking back up at them.

“He does not need to be fixed,” Jor says, firmly. “He will understand what he needs to understand, just like he will use magic when he needs to. He is communicating with you easily enough, I think.”

Tony thinks about that for a little bit.

He’s about to say when Thor walks in. Fen and Jor whirl around to face him, calling defensive magic to their hands and standing protectively in front of Loki and Tony (though probably mostly Loki).

Thor stops, looking a little taken aback. He is wearing jeans and a hoodie, and is slightly rumpled like he just woke up from a nap. He raises his hands to show he doesn’t want a fight. “Boys,” he says quietly, nodding at both of them gently.

Tony wants to intervene, but before he can do anything Loki gets up out of the bed and walks in front of Thor, turning back around to stare at his sons fiercely.

They’re right, he doesn’t need words to communicate. His sons lower their hands and let the spells disintegrate. Loki turns back to Thor and whatever passes between them Tony can’t tell, but Thor smiles warmly. “Thank you, brother.”

Loki turns away and heads back to Tony, crawling up into the bed and resettling there.

“Everyone, sit down. There are enough seats,” Tony says, gesturing magnanimously.

“I do not think we are welcome here,” hisses Jor, watching warily as Thor bypasses them and takes a seat next to Tony’s bed. Tony looks at Thor, who is tense but keeping it together.

‘Of course you’re welcome,” Tony says, looking back at the boys. “It’s my property, I want you here. You’re welcome. Sit down a while and visit with your father. I’m certain you came a long way to see him.”

They both do as he instructs, but they don’t take their eyes off Thor.

The tension is unbearable.

“Oh my god this is like Christmas with my fucking family,” Tony groans. “You guys need to drop it, or fight it out and get it over with.”

“If we start fighting we won’t stop until the world ends,” says Fen, but Jor looks like he’s considering it carefully.

“Not necessarily, Fen,” he says. “Father is no longer tied to the cycle. Maybe we aren’t either.”

“Jor,” says Fen, sounding frustrated.

“Let’s do it,” says Thor, nodding at Jor. Everyone is surprised by that, apart from Loki who doesn't show any sign of caring about anything other than curling into Tony. “There is a large training area outside that we could use.”

Fen looks taken aback, on the verge of protesting, but Jor grins. It is the first expression Tony has seen on Jor's face and it’s terrifying. Jor’s teeth are long and sharp like needles, and his mouth stretches too wide.

“Three matches, to the floor. If I win I eat you, if you win I will consider matters between us settled,” Jor says.

“No magic,” says Thor immediately. “And no transformations.”

“No hammer and you must be blindfolded,” counters Jor.

“Accepted,” Thor says, extending his arm over the bed to hold a hand out to Jor.

Jor looks at the hand, looks up at his uncle, and after a few moments he shakes the hand.

“I gotta see this,” says Tony, struggling to get up and follow them out the door. Loki walks by his side, still completely naked. “Dude, you have to put pants on at some point.”

Loki doesn’t look like he agrees.

The rest of the team seems to know something epic is going down, because they show up pretty quickly while Thor and Jor are getting ready for the fight.

“For a match between two gods there is too much clothing and not enough oil,” sighs Clint sadly. He is holding a large bowl of popcorn, and Tony wonders how he had enough time to get a snack.

“Maybe when they get going someone will lose a shirt," says Bruce hopefully.

“Is it weird that they’re objectifying men more than we are?” Wanda asks Natasha.

Natasha shrugs. “What's weird? What’s normal?”

Steve and Bucky are sat behind everyone, paying attention close attention to what’s going on. Thor has found a leather blindfold somewhere (Tony doesn’t want to know), and is tying it over his eyes.

“We will start on Fenrir’s signal,” Thor says. An uneasy silence settles over the gathered Avengers. This is Loki’s son, who has even less reason to love Thor than Loki does. Punches are not going to be pulled.

Loki is resting his head on Tony’s shoulder, eyes closed with contentment.

Then Fenrir raises his head and lets out a low, unearthly howl. That sound should not be able to come out of a human body. Something primal reels within Tony—that is the sound of death, his heart tells him. That is the sound of teeth, and fur, and darkness. That is the sound of obliteration.

Jor immediately transforms into a huge, golden serpent.  His eyes are gem like, bright red and huge, and his coils fill the sizable arena, winding round and round. Were he to stretch out he would be nearly a mile long.

“We agreed no transformations!” shouts Thor, panicking as he backs up into Jor’s side.

“Yesss, we did agree,” says Jor in a voice that shakes the ground, soft th’s replaced by sharp, knife-like s’s. “So here I am, no longer transformed. I will fight you as I truly am, and then I shall eat you.”

Jor twitches a coil and knocks Thor to the ground easily. “One,” he says, laughing with manic delight.

The team rushes to stand up and help Thor, but Fen waves a hand and they freeze and then fall back, bound to their seats with magic. “This will not be stopped,” he warns.

Thor scrambles to his feet, breathing hard.

“Odin cursed you the day he gave you that malformed hammer. You relied too much on its strength to protect you from the consequences of your actions. You never cultivated enough intellect or character to make you worth all the pain you cause. When I eat you the universe will be better for it.” Jor twitches another coil lazily and knocks Thor to the ground again. “Two,” he adds, sounding a little bored.

“Don’t get up!” shouts Steve, sounding panicked.

“Oh, if he doesn’t get up I’ll still eat him. Nothing could stop me,” Jor says. “Get up, Thor. Die like a warrior.”

Thor gets to his feet slowly, turning towards Jor. He takes his blindfold off.

Everyone holds their breath and waits.

“I hope that you find peace,” says Thor, gently. “I’m sorry for my actions.” He reaches a hand out and pats Jor’s nose gently. “I’m ready to die, now.”

Tony’s brain comes back online. “Loki, you have to stop this,” he cries, shaking Loki.

Jor opens his mouth, opens, opens, opens until it’s so wide that Thor can walk inside without ducking. Thor takes a step closer, shaking a little.

“Loki,” Tony whispers, pleading. “Please.”

Loki opens his eyes. They are bright green and glowing, and as he rises to his feet the green travels down his body until he is robed in black leather and green and gold chain mail. Jor pauses, great red eye swiveling to focus on his father.

“No,” says Loki, waving his hand once.

Jor shrinks, shrinks, shrinks until he is no larger than the palm of Loki’s hand. Loki bends down and gently picks his son up, cradling him close to his chest. “No,” he says again. Then he turns to Thor and holds his son out for Thor to take. “No,” he says.

Thor holds his hands out for Jor, and Jor immediately coils around Thor’s thumb and bites it, twisting angrily.

Thor sighs. “There is no way you can eat me when you’re that size. Please stop.”

“Father,” says Fen desperately, “Thor will kill him!”

“No,” says Loki.

“No,” says Thor gravely, in agreement.

Fen looks between them, angry and confused. “How can you forgive him?” he asks Loki, finally. His voice cracks with emotion.

Loki doesn’t answer, but he walks up to his son and bites him on the cheek. Fen grabs at Loki and buries his face in his chest. “Father,” he says, brokenly.

“No,” says Loki, resting his hand on the back of Fen’s neck.

Then Loki steps away, walking back to Tony’s side, looping an arm around Tony’s waist. “No,” he says, and transports them back to Tony’s hospital room.

“We probably should have stayed and made sure there was no more fighting,” Tony says.

Predictably, Loki’s answer is “No.”

“You’re like a toddler,” Tony sighs. “Of course that’s the first word you pick when you decide to start reclaiming speech.”

Loki grins mischievously. “No,” he says, biting gently at Tony’s cheek.

Tony chuckles. “Someday you have to explain the cheek biting thing to me. Not that I don’t like it, but it’s kinda weird.”

Loki pushes them both back into bed and curls around Tony. “No,” he says.

Just as Tony is getting sleepy enough to fall back into a recuperative slumber he asks “Do you love me?” to fuck with Loki, who can only answer 'no'.

Loki leaves the question unanswered, and Tony is just about asleep when Loki nuzzles up next to his ear and whispers--

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

“On Margate Sands. 
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.” 

                      la la

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest 

burning "

-The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

 

Thor decides to stay at the tower for a while, to be closer to Loki, so he packs up all his cats and moves into his suite of rooms. Fen agrees, disagreeably, to stay in one of Thor's rooms for as long as he will stay.

The cats are traumatized for a brief hour by the move and then it’s back to business as usual. Silvertongue hides under the bed, Skywalker finds the tallest place and nests atop (in this case a shallow balcony that overlooks the main living space), Liesmith defecates in the shower, Hveðrungr hides behind the couch to ambush Thor whenever he walks into the apartment, and Loki (the cat) yells at anyone who walks through the door, which is suddenly a lot more people than just Thor, so he is in his element.

On this night Steve, Bucky, and Clint have joined Thor and Fen for a simple dinner of pizza and “crazy” bread. 

Steve and Silvertongue gravitate towards each other almost immediately. “I love him,” Steve says reverently as Silvertongue kneads his thigh.

None of the cats like Bucky. They seem suspicious of the arm. Bucky is entirely fine with this.

Clint and Skywalker are seated together on the balcony.

Jor, who is small still, rests across Thor’s shoulders, peeking out through his hair at Fen.

Fen, who is seated next to Thor, offers a hand for Jor to climb onto, but Jor retreats back into Thor’s hair.

“He was going to eat you yesterday,” Fen says, clearly annoyed. “Now you’re his best friend.”

“He wants to stay close to me so he can devour me as soon as he retains his original size,” Thor says calmly. Jor hisses delicately behind his ear, probably in affirmation.

“Your family is really fucked up,” says Clint from above. Fen frowns up at Clint, but Thor laughs.

“Aye,” Thor says. “Some of our feuds go back to before your planet was a planet.”

“It’s so hard to believe you’ve been alive that long,” Steve says.

“I’ve been tolerable company for perhaps ten of your years, so you understand why my family hates me so much,” Thor says agreeably. Inside he aches, because he knows how true it is. He feels Jor go still on his shoulder, and Fen is similarly motionless, staring down at his plate.

“What’d you do to piss off snake boy?” Bucky asks.

Jor tenses and Fen turns pale, looking over at Thor as though he expects this to turn into a brawl. Thor is… was not very good at being confronted about his faults, or even having them mentioned in passing. Or even hinted at a little. Bucky has casually thrown the fault firmly at his doorstep. In another lifetime Bucky would likely be dead now.

“It might take less time to explain what I haven’t done to deserve his enmity,” Thor muses. “Any deed that is born of hatred and malice I have committed against both of my nephews, but the most egregious of my crimes were committed against Jormungandr. I did not understand him, so I hated him, and took special pleasure in tormenting him. When my father cast him into the ocean of midgard, both for his and Asgard’s sake, I hunted him down so that I could resume my sport. All this I did, and yet I couldn’t comprehend my brother’s hatred for me,” Thor says with a short laugh. “I am the biggest fool in the universe, truly.”

A very awkward silence is broken by Clint, who offers a series of non-sequiturs to get a conversation going again.

Soon after that the three Avengers leave, and Thor and Fen clean up in silence. When the dishes are washed and put away, Thor gently plucks Jor from his shoulders and cradles him in his hands. He goes to sit down on the couch, and beckons Fen over with a look.

“I don’t know how to begin,” Thor says quietly. “There are crimes I wish to atone for that I can’t. There are scars that won’t heal. I just want to say, for whatever it’s worth, that you have deserved none of what I’ve done to you. And I… I have deserved worse than what you’ve done to me.”

Thor passes Jor over to Fen, who loops his brother around his neck gently.  “I don’t trust you,” Fen says gently. “But I may someday. I did not think a night such as this one could be possible. I… never thought I’d hear those words from your mouth. You are many things, but you are not a liar like Odin. Like my father. I… I know that what you said tonight is what you believe.” Fen looks at Thor with something like wonder. “Midgard is filled with a magic that is absent in our realm, and I have seen it do many amazing things. Impossible things. Tonight has been…” Fen doesn’t finish the thought, but Thor nods in understanding.

“Nothing should last forever. Impermanence is what makes something precious. I lived too long without understanding fear, and so I lived without understanding love and mercy. Midgard has taught me fear and the value of it. The power to penetrate my thick skull with a new thought is a magic more powerful than any Odin possesses.”

Thor means to make Fen laugh, but Fen blinks rapidly as though trying to hold back tears. Thor reaches out and grabs Fen’s shoulder gently.

And Fen lets him.

They part ways for the night and Thor gathers up Silvertongue for bed. The rest of the cats do not enjoy sharing the bed with him, but Silvertongue will sleep on the pillow next to Thor’s head. That warm presence helps him fall asleep when his thoughts are in turmoil, like they will be tonight.

Just because Thor can admit his faults now does not mean that it is easier for him.

Ten minutes after settling into a comfortable position the sirens go off. Thor sighs.

“At least I’m still awake,” he mutters, getting out of bed and dressing for battle with a quick wave of his hand. He doesn’t perform magic in front of others so they don’t know he is capable. But of course he is, with Frigga for a mother.

The Avengers crowd into the jet, waiting a couple minutes for Tony to join them. He is usually the first on the jet, smugly yelling at everyone else to hurry, so they tease him gently as he takes his seat and they lift off.

“Yeah, yeah. Had to ‘sit’, ‘stay’ Loki like twenty times. I really can’t wait for him to get language back, I can’t deal with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ level dialogue,” he gripes.

Thor winces. “He is without the Allspeak, Tony. He is very clever, but it will take him a long time to understand and develop complex speech. Years until he is at the level he was before.”

Tony’s face falls. “But… he still has magic…”

“He has magic, but the spell work behind Allspeak is jealously guarded. Only Odin knows how to weave such a complex spell.”

Tony’s eyes turn steely with determination, but he says nothing. Thor spends a few moments feeling very concerned—ever since Tony began to think of magic as “source code” he’s been doing secretive experiments in the lab. But it’s Tony, which means there is nothing Thor can do but clean up the mess afterwards.

Thor isn’t listening when they get a briefing from Maria about the foe they are about to engage. There is little need, when Thor’s main strategy is to hit things, and then electrocute everything that doesn’t stay down when hit. It’s a simple strategy, and he is a simple man.

When he steps off the plane there is fire, smoke, and screaming. An army of large, spider-like creatures are crawling over everything in sight, each ridden by a masked man with a gun. Guns and grenades, Thor corrects.

“Guns, grenades, and spiders? Talk about overkill,” Bucky says, shooting at a spider that’s crawling up the side of a skyscraper. It screams with an eerily human voice as it detaches and falls to its death on the pavement below.

“Creepy,” says Clint.

As the fight progresses over the next hour Wanda realizes that the spiders and men have switched minds somehow. “Parasitic lifeforms,” she murmurs into the coms. “They’ve taken control of human bodies, using them as combined shields and weapons. If we kill the spiders, we kill the mind of the victim, but if we kill the men there is no body for the human mind to return to. We have to find a way to incapacitate them without killing them.”

Which seems near impossible. Thor, whose two main strategies are now useless, is relegated to transporting Clint from rooftop to rooftop. “Running out of tranq-darts,” Clint says.

“Reinforcements incoming,” says Tony, and a few seconds later a Stark-pod hurtles towards Clint, carrying a payload of more tranquilizer tipped arrows. “Aw fuck!” Tony shouts as two horse sized spiders take a flying leap at him.

Clint is just reloading, aiming for the spiders that have knocked Tony to the ground, when he shouts “Loki!”

Thor looks down quickly and sees Loki standing in the middle of an intersection, hands glowing green, and face contorted in rage as he watches Tony fight off the spiders. Thor closes his eyes and turns away, realizing what is about to happen seconds before it starts.

Every single one of the spiders starts screaming as they are engulfed in green gold flame. The chorus of screams rises into the night, but is soon silenced as the flames finish devouring their prey.

Wanda sobs into the comms. “All dead, all of them are dead.”

“Fuck!” Tony screams, suddenly enraged. “I told you! I told you to stay away! Why the fuck are you here, Loki? You just killed two hundred people like it was nothing!”

Thor doesn’t know if Loki understands the words, but he obviously understands the rage. The expression on Loki’s face breaks Thor’s heart—worse than when Loki let go of the spear and plunged into darkness, worse than when Thor thought he had died on Svartelheim. Loki stumbles backwards, away from Tony.

“Fuck, Loki, I’m--” Tony says, trying to take it back.

But Loki is already gone.

Chapter Text

"Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.


                            A current under sea 
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.


                              Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, 
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you."

-The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

 

“Well aren’t you supposed to have some all-seeing asshole up in the sky? Why can’t you find him?” Tony yells, throwing one of his gauntlets across the room in a fit of fury.

“Technically he doesn’t see so much as he senses energy signatures,” Fen says. Jor is curled up in his shirt pocket, peering out at Tony. “Like radar dishes for eyes.”

Tony really wants to break something. He turns his back on everyone in the room and tries to get control of himself. “So?” he asks. Everyone is being so unhelpful.

“So my father doesn’t, uh… doesn’t have the same energy signal that he used to. He can only ever bypass Heimdall temporarily and with a lot of concentration, but now he doesn’t have to do anything. His energy signature is completely different. They’d never be able to find him, because they don’t even know what to look for.”

Tony looks to Thor for confirmation, and Thor nods.

“But you guys know what to look for,” Tony says. “You know what his ener--”

Thor holds up a hand. “Loki will come back in his own time. I’ve been forced to hunt my brother too many times in my life, I will not do it again. Not even for you, Tony.”

“But he’s out there hurting, and--”

“And next time you will think before you speak so harshly to him,” Thor says, firmly, but not unkindly. “Loki will return. I know it.”

But Tony doesn’t believe him. Tony lies awake, torturing himself for hours, until physical and emotional exhaustion (and the whiskey he promised himself he wouldn’t drink) carry him away into a dream.

Anger, tinged with an ache. Confusion. Cold. Longing. The smell of the ocean, and the sound of faraway laughter. The clamor of electric carnival jingles, and the clack-clack-clack-scream-whoosh of roller coasters.

Tony jolts awake, a migraine headache digging in behind his left eye.

A memory plays itself for him, made rosy with the patina of time and love. Him and Loki, picking up trash on the Los Angeles Pier for the day. Afterwards they shared a caramel apple, the first one Loki ever tasted. His eyes lit up with joy, and he said “I’m almost glad I didn’t win.”

That was before Tony could admit to himself that he’d fallen in love with the mad bastard who dragged Tony along in his wake so unexpectedly. And Tony is still being dragged along, blissfully helpless in the undertow.

Tony lies awake, staring at the ceiling. Or staring in the direction of the ceiling. Too dark to actually see the ceiling. The migraine intensifies. Usually when Tony gets a migraine he wants nothing more than to pop a few sleeping pills and be unconscious until it’s over. But the compulsion to get up, go see, smell, hear, feel the ocean—

Tony groans and sits up, and calls for a suit. In no time he’s flying through the air, headed to Los Angeles, to be in the place where he once spent a pleasant day with Loki. It’s a five hour flight, and Tony spends the entire time crying silently. In pain, in regret, in exhaustion.

Friday indicates their approach, and Tony lands on the beach shortly after, a little bit away from the Pier. He doesn’t intend to go exploring, he just wants to look at it at a distance. He steps out of his suit, into the night and onto the sand.

The smell of the ocean is unpleasant to him, but he inhales deeply. He closes his eyes and listens to the unstoppable waves. The migraine has eased, but it’s still there. It feels like a tugging, which he tries to ignore, but eventually he gives in and moves in the direction his body is screaming at him to move in. He walks closer to the pier. He is compelled to walk underneath, so he does.

Suddenly he knows that Loki is there. The little place in the brain that says ‘ah!’ when it sees a face it recognizes is firing rapidly. He knows, he knows, he knows.

“Loki?” he calls out, frantic. “Loki, please come out!”

He hears the sand shift behind him and suddenly Loki is there, looking at him cautiously like a feral animal that’s learned to associate humans with sustenance. ‘You might hurt me, but it’s worth the risk to come closer just in case you don’t.’

“I’m sorry,” Tony chokes out, approaching slowly. Loki allows Tony to pull him close into an embrace, and once his head is tucked up beneath Tony’s chin he sighs and his shoulders relax. Tony kisses the side of his face. “I’m sorry. If you’d been in danger I would have killed them too. I’m sorry.”

Loki whimpers gently, and Tony’s heart breaks. “God I wish I could talk to you. I wish I knew that you understood me. I want you so badly, I wish I could show you that. Make-up sex with me is really awesome, I’ve got a lot of practice at it.”

Loki licks his neck and Tony laughs. “Maybe you do understand me. Not risking it, though. No nookie until you talk to me. This is incentive for you to learn how to talk, okay?”

The noise of complaint that Loki makes is drowned out by the sudden blast of light that hits the sand next to the boardwalk. Tony’s suit is destroyed in the process. “Fuck!” he yells, dragging Loki back to a safer distance. Loki shakes him off though, and moves forward a few steps as a tall man with white hair and an eyepatch approaches them. There is something familiar in the way the man walks, a prowling grace that makes him think of Loki.

“Oh my god, it’s Odin,” Tony murmurs. Loki squeezes his hand and moves to step in front of Tony protectively.

“Let me see your new leash holder,” Odin barks, striking the sand with a (truly gaudy) spear. “Move, or I will move you.”

Loki doesn’t move.

“You should have stayed dead, you know. The trouble you have given me—if you thought the serpent was punishment, you will soon find those memories a comfort in comparison to what I will do to you.”

That’s just too fucking far. Tony struggles to free himself from Loki’s grip and moves to stand next to him to see Odin for himself.

“Listen, fuck face--” Odin raises an eyebrow at Tony’s tone “You don’t lay a hand on this man. I don’t care how powerful you are, I’ll rip out your other eye and shove it up your ass so you can see where my foot is embedded.”

Odin throws his head back to laugh. “I’d be insulted if you mattered more than a gnat, but as it stands you are just a pebble in the tide. So soon you will be ground to sand. So soon you will be forgotten.”

“No,” Loki says.

Odin ignores Loki and addresses Tony again instead. “I don’t know how a middling sorcerer such as yourself managed to interrupt the cycle I’ve staked my life on protecting, but you will cede your claim to Loki and return him to my power.”

“I’ll die first,” says Tony. He is filled with questions (claim? Sorcerer?) but he keeps his mouth shut.

Odin’s smile is like a scar that splits his face open. Tony sees Loki from so many years ago, and knows who he learned his cruelty from.

“No, you will scream first. Then you will beg for death,” Odin assures Tony.

Tony snorts. “I was captured once by men who thought they had a right to rule the world, just like you. They tortured me for months, because they wanted me to give them a weapon too--and don’t think for an instant that I don’t know that’s all that Loki is to you. And you know what I did? While they tortured me? I found a way to kill every single one of them, and then I killed every. Single. One of them. So go ahead, keep alive long enough to torture me. Try to break me. But make sure you remember that every second you keep me alive is a second I will use to find a way to kill you. And then I’ll kill you, and I still won’t give you Loki.”

If Odin is taken aback or frightened by this speech it doesn’t show, but he takes a few moments before speaking again.

“You doom my entire race to death by keeping him tied to you,” Odin says.

Ah, a different tactic. Brilliant, this means that Tony really does hold some power in this situation.

“Maybe it’s time for you to die,” Tony says, coldly.

Odin scowls. “You do not care that your brother in arms will die? You do not care about Thor?”

“I get the impression that Thor has lived long enough. When he dies next time he should be allowed to actually rest for once and stay dead.”

“Unacceptable!” screams Odin, spittle flying from his lips. “I sacrificed everything to gain the power to preserve us! I will not be thwarted by an ant and an ingrate!”

“Tough titties,” Tony says, folding his arms. Seriously, fuck this guy.

Odin roars in rage, slamming his spear against the sand again, but Tony isn’t intimidated even a little.

Eventually Odin’s breathing slows and he opens his mouth to try again. “You don’t know how to complete the spell. He’s unfinished, I can feel it. He will be useless to you unless you finish what you started.”

Tony raises his eyebrows. “He’s not a tool.”

“Of course he is!” Odin yells. “Look at him! His power! I gave my eye and my first life to become half as powerful as he was when he was an infant!”

“Sounds like a personal problem,” Tony says, as far from sympathy as Pluto is from the sun. Further even.

“You insolent, insignificant--”

Tony cuts him off. “Go away. You won’t like it if I have to tell you again.”

“You dare to give me orders, you dare--”

Tony’s officially done. He holds up a hand and Odin halts himself instantly. “If I managed to break your little cycle thingy and interfere in your plans, what makes you think I’m just a ‘middling’ sorcerer? You say you sacrificed an eye and a life to get your power, but I managed to fuck your shit up with as much effort as it takes to sneeze. So, I think that’s how I dare. Get off my fucking planet before I make you.”

Odin growls but he turns and walks back towards the circle of blackened sand left by the bifrost. He turns to look at Tony one more time. “He will never be useful to you until you give him a purpose, until you shape him. You are wasting him.”

“Fuck you,” says Tony.

Odin disappears in another blast of light.

Tony is shaking with adrenaline and rage. Loki reaches a hand out for him, tentatively, and Tony takes it. He raises it to his lips and kisses each of Loki’s knuckles. He has beautiful hands.

“I love you,” Tony says. “You are not a tool and you aren’t something for me to shape. I… maybe it is my fault you’re incomplete. I don’t know jack shit about magic and I don’t know how to complete a spell, but if I have to… break you to ‘fix’ you, I’d rather you be like this forever. Give you a purpose, as though that’s my fucking right. Like it’s okay for me to have that much power over you. Fuck him,” Tony says, voice breaking. “Fuck him.”

Loki draws Tony into his embrace and hums gently, soothingly against Tony’s ear.

“The only purpose you need is to find your own purpose, baby. The only shape you need to take is your own.” Tony pulls back enough to kiss Loki on the lips.

And then--

Loki inhales sharply.

And then—

Time freezes for an instant.

And then—

Tony feels a surge of power, like the entire ocean in his lungs, passing from his body into Loki’s.

And then—

Loki’s eyes roll up into the back of his skull.

And then—

Everything goes black.

Chapter Text

Then spoke the thunder
DA 
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed 
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA 
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours 
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
DA
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded 
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order? 

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins 
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih"

- The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot

 

Loki wakes up, which is surprising to him for a multitude of reasons.

The first reason is that he didn’t expect to be alive. The spell he worked into the arc reactor should have kept his soul woven into the glowing green light, unless certain requirements were met. Which means certain requirements were met (so unlikely as to be impossible—one hundred thousand flips of the coin all landing on heads, a rich man caring for the poor, his brother admitting that the brain is not a muscle), or his spell work was shoddy (just as unlikely, but in his opinion a little more so, if only so that his ego remains intact).

He turns his aching head towards the familiar snuffly-snore to his left and sees Tony unconscious in the sand next to him.

Which confirms that his spell work was spot on and Tony managed to meet the requirements of the spell.

Which means a lot of other things that he’s not prepared to think of right now.

He sits up, groaning softly.

The second reason he is surprised to wake up is that he was certain Odin would either find a way to interrupt the process that Loki set in motion, or rip apart the universe trying to wrest back control.

I’m actually free, Loki thinks, but it’s a numb realization. It’s not real yet.

Tony starts waking up next to him, and Loki turns to watch.

When Tony sees him the smile that lights his face breaks Loki’s heart.

“You okay, sweetie?” Tony asks, strangely cautious as he reaches out to check Loki over.

“Perfectly fine,” he says. Tony’s jaw drops.

“Are you… you’re… you’re back?”

Loki raises an eyebrow, slightly amused. “You see me, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I see you, but now you’re talking and being you! Oh my god!” Tony cries, launching himself at Loki and toppling him back onto the sand. Loki tolerates this, but gently directs Tony’s knee away from delicate areas.

“Yes, yes, everything is in working order, you loon!”

“You don’t understand, you were basically mute for weeks. I’m just… I never thought I’d speak to you again. Properly, I mean. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed your insults and threats, baby,” Tony gushes, punctuating his statements with heartfelt kisses.

Loki giggles a little. “Get off me before I skin you alive, you pox-riddled and thrice damned cretin.”

“Mmm, that’s the stuff,” Tony says, giving Loki one last heated kiss before sitting up.

Then Tony slaps Loki across the face.

“Don’t. Ever. Do that to me. Again,” Tony growls, leaning closer. “We made love and then you left to die. Do you know what that did to me?”

Loki sighs, rubbing his cheek. “Save some of your anger. I did other things that you’ll loathe me for.”

“Great,” says Tony, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is the revenge from every ex I’ve ever had--I’m in love with myself; a lying, suicidal, thrill-seeking bastard.”

“You’re still in love with me though. Try to hold onto that,” says Loki, getting to his feet with some help from Tony. “Where are we?”

“Los Angeles. Odin wrecked my suit pretty thoroughly, so we’re going to have to find another way to get back to--”

Loki grabs Tony, pulls him close, and a few moments (and a familiar shower of gold and green) later they’re standing in Tony’s tower apartment.

“I forgot you could do that,” Tony says, blinking rapidly. “Friday, my suit got destroyed next to the pier in Los Angeles. Send someone to collect the wreckage, quickly.”

“Of course. Welcome back sir, Loki,” she says.

Loki doesn’t step back. He keeps Tony close, marveling at the sensation of their bodies pressed together and trying to memorize every detail. When the entirety of his deeds are revealed, he may not be allowed to do this again. Tony seems to read his mind.

“You really did something bad, didn’t you? You’re scared. You’re trying to remember this because you think I’m going to leave you,” Tony says.

“Yes.” Loki is not ashamed to admit fear. Not now. He used to have a bottomless pit of shame inside his heart, but no longer. He truly has been reborn, and even if he loses Tony it was worth it just to breathe one moment of air that wasn’t tainted with the legacy that Odin gave to him. He is free.

“Do you love me?” Tony asks.

Loki inhales sharply, closing his eyes.

“Tony, you are…”

They are interrupted before Loki can finish the thought.

“Father!”

Loki jerks around, seeing Fen for the first time in… Loki cannot reckon. “My boy,” he croaks, all air gone from his lungs. Then he rushes forward to embrace Fenrir, feel his son in his arms. “My boy,” he whispers. He inhales deeply, smelling wild grass, sun baked earth, the cold river where he used to teach Fen to fish.

“Father, you are whole again?” Fenrir asks, leaning back to look his father in the eye.

A movement in Fen’s front shirt pocket catches Loki’s eye, and joy fills his heart again as he sees Jormungandr poking his head out, flicking his tongue rapidly in recognition. He holds his hand out and Jor climbs atop it, allowing Loki to cradle him close to his chest. “Sweet one,” he whispers, kissing the coil of Jor’s body. “If Hela and Sleipnir were here I think I would die of joy,” Loki says, reaching out a hand to clasp Fen’s shoulder.

What remains of his family in one place, whole and healthy. He has probably done nothing in his life to be given such a prize, but that has never stopped him from coveting it.

“Well, we can give you three out of four,” says Fen, smiling gently. “Hela arrived an hour before you did. She’s speaking with Lady Pepper, but will return soon.”

“While we wait, perhaps you can tell me why Jor is so tiny,” Loki says, looking down at his son who is currently weaving his way through his fingers.

“You transformed Jor after he nearly ate Thor, and he has been this way ever since.”

“Huh,” says Loki. He doesn’t remember anything like that, yet the absence of the memory is not distressing to him. A strange thing. “Well, he’s certainly not under any spell now.”

“I think he wanted to be petulant and remained that way out of spite, but ended up enjoying being carted around, and not being expected to participate in conversations. Thor dotes on him, and Jor delights in defecating wherever he pleases. Especially on Thor,” Fen says. Jor hisses gently, and Loki kisses his coil again.

They sit together on the couch, Fen on Loki’s left, Tony on his right, Jor coiled around his neck and resting. They don’t talk, they just… exist, quietly and with great affection.

Hela walks in and Loki is once again consumed with a joy that he hasn’t felt in lifetimes. “Love,” he says, standing to greet her and kissing her on the cheek. He turns to look at Fen—relaxed, smiling gently. He looks at Hela, her cheek tinged a pleasant pink (“speaking” with Pepper, indeed), eye sparkling with good humor and affection. He turns to look at Tony, who despite his earlier outburst appears to be in very good spirits.

“Thank you,” he says to Tony. “You have cared for my family in my absence, and I can see that they are thriving under your auspices.”

“Your kids are my kids,” Tony says, shrugging like it’s obvious.

Fen blinks rapidly and turns away, and Loki feels much the same. “That’s not… you don’t know what that means, Tony,” Loki says carefully. “You don’t understand what you’re saying when you say that.”

“I mean that I’ll feed ‘em, house ‘em, love ‘em, and kill for ‘em,” Tony insists. “They’re my family now too.”

“In our culture adopting the children of a fellow warrior means something very similar to your marriage,” Hela clarifies helpfully.

“Yeah,” says Tony.

“You…”

Loki can’t even finish a thought, let alone a sentence.

Tony snorts. “I cried on a magic thing and you came back to life, and I kissed you and BAM you’re all fixed. Like, that has to be ‘true love’ magic or something. Obviously I want to marry you,” Tony says, raising an eyebrow. Then a thought seems to occur to him, passing over his features like a raincloud. “Unless that isn’t what you want, I mean… if it’s not the same for you then--”

“Yes,” Loki says quickly, then quickly clarifies as Tony’s face falls further. “Marriage. Yes. That. Do that, with me. Please.”

“Cool,” says Tony, sitting back and smiling again.

“He’s insane,” says Fen. “I like him.”

Everyone is silent for the span of four heartbeats before the impact of what happened hits them, and then they all start speaking at once.

“Pepper is going to be ecstatic!” “Are you certain you want to marry me?” “Thor is going to be unbearable, he’s always unbearable at weddings. Cries and then is starts raining—you can’t have an outdoor wedding, father.” “I’m so glad your kids are already grown up. I would be a horrible father if they were still children.”

The chaos lasts well into the night as Avengers join them, and when Thor finally comes by and Loki embraces him and calls him brother easily and means it, it rains so hard outside that the streets flood. The alcohol is plentiful, the food choices are varied as no one can agree on any one thing and no one is willing to compromise, and Loki’s heart is light.

This is the chaos of his younger years, before everything became bitter and gnarled. The chaos that comes with love and friendship, and light. This is the chaos he used to bring, and he drinks it in like a man dying of thirst. This is what he wants to be, this is the form he wants to take—father, brother, lover, friend.

They decide to have a “slumber party” and everyone gets into pajamas and brings their bedding. Fen, who spent the night slowly coming out of his shell, looks at home surrounded by others. Loki thinks this could be the pack that Fen always denied himself, and the thought nearly unmans him. His boy has been lonely for so long.

He looks down at Jor, who has never needed the company or counsel of others. Jor looks back up at him. “I am ready to start living again, my son.”

~*~

The months pass, and Loki waits. But he spends his time pleasantly, spending it with his children and his lover.

Odin waits to make his move on the day of Loki’s wedding, which doesn’t surprise Loki in the least. It is the most dramatic choice and the one that Loki would make (if he was still a miserable bastard like Odin.)

Tony and Loki had not opted for what would have been deemed a traditional wedding, by either of their cultures. Instead they had thrown a party that would culminate with the recital of vows and the signing of documents. Simple, straightforward, no chaos at all.

The bifrost hits outside the tent (they compromised on an outdoor wedding by setting up a large tent, which was good planning because Thor started blubbering as soon as Tony and Loki stood up and prepared to say their vows). Odin is visible through the rain, moving towards them at a leisurely pace. Loki would have been angry merely at the sight of Odin, but Odin is riding atop Sleipnir. They enter the tent and the table of guests in front of him flee as Odin knocks the table aside with a spear.

“Father!” shouts Thor, calling the hammer to his hand. “How dare you come here?”

Odin shouts incoherently at Thor, aiming the spear at him. Then he growls, “I am still your king, boy.”

“No, you are a mad man,” says Thor. “Leave this place.”

“I will not leave until I have spoken!” roars Odin.

Loki snorts. “Then speak. I know what you come here to do. I am ready and I am unafraid.”

“You were doomed the moment you forgot your fear. I am come to bare your sins to your beloved. As ruler of Asgard I cannot, with good conscience, allow you to marry this man without knowing the depth and breadth of his wickedness,” Odin says, addressing Tony. There is a self-satisfied gleam in his eye that makes Loki clench his teeth.

Loki squeezes Tony’s hand. “If you can love me after this, then you and I shall never be parted.”

“Bring it on, asshole,” Tony says to Odin.

“Loki is treacherous—he brought enemies into the house of Odin, to ruin his own brother’s coronation, and to humiliate its people. He will betray you as well,” Odin says.

“He pretended to get captured so he could board a helicarrier and unleash the Hulk. He killed one of my friends. Believe me, I know just how tricky he can be,” Tony says.

Loki squeezes his hand and murmurs quietly to Tony. “The Widow and Clint have told me about Phil and his bravery. For what it is worth, had he not been my enemy, I would have been proud to call him a shield brother.”

“There’s a pun there somewhere,” Tony says drily. He looks at Loki, expression more serious. “I’ll never forgive you for it, but I don’t hate you, babe.”

Odin’s face is red. “Loki is a liar and a thief. He hid me away in stasis and stole my throne, and falsely ruled. He will usurp your power and undermine you at every turn.”

“Thor said that Asgard saw more progress and prosperity in three years of Loki’s rule than in a millennia of yours. If Loki wants to run my company, he’s welcome to it. And if he wants to pretend to be me at board meetings, I will suck his dick as often as he wants me to.”

Loki would have preferred that Tony not mention that last bit, but he can’t deny that he’s pleased by the look of horror that it has placed on Odin’s face. Tony squeezes Loki’s hand again, and Loki squeezes back.

“I have been watching Loki constantly, from the moment I reclaimed my throne. I was not unaware of your imprisonment at his hands, either time. But what you are unaware of is that you did not destroy the manuscript like he claimed you had. He lied to you, claimed a false debt from you, tricked you into building the means by which he has undone all of my work.”

Loki winces. That one might actually do some damage if—

“That makes a lot more sense,” Tony says, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I always thought it was weird that I was able to destroy it with a blast to your back.”

Loki looks at Tony whose eyes are twinkling.

“How long did you know?” Loki asks.

“I suspected as soon as I finished building the damn thing,” Tony says. “But honestly I was trying really hard not to think about it.”

“I’m not really sorry about that one, if I’m honest,” says Loki, biting his lip.

Tony smiles. “I’m not upset. It was for a good cause… the best cause, really. In the end.”

“He never loved you. He seduced you deliberately in order to make sure that you would be able to resurrect him when he needed you to. He used you, like he always uses everyone,” Odin says.

Tony turns to look at Loki. “Is that… which parts of that are true?”

Loki sighs, closing his eyes. He needs to tell the truth, and it's one of the hardest things he's ever had to do.

“I was tired. I... I wanted it all to end, but I knew Odin was watching me, which meant that I couldn’t have a single plan. Chaos is my art, so it wasn’t difficult. The arc reactor was the culmination of years of careful non-planning. Once it was built, my main objective was completed. When I died, whenever that would be, my soul would be sent to the core of the reactor. The reactor would power the spells I wove into it indefinitely. Ragnarok would pass without me and I would fall out of the cycle naturally. I intended to die. I could not take the path that Baldr took, for Odin ensured no one could fall that way again. But I have always made my own path.

And so having completed my goal, I became bored. My thoughts turned to you, dear Tony, and of how much I had enjoyed our time together, unwilling as it was on your part. I thought that I could spend my last days with someone who made me laugh, who challenged me. I found myself longing to become your friend, so I set about showing you all of what I was capable of, all that I could be. I didn’t know if you would understand or if you would keep your heart hardened towards me.

But you surprised me. It was as though you decided to become my friend to spite me. I didn’t dissuade you. As I grew to know you, I began to love you.

Then… then the inevitable happened, and in the Ice Giant’s realm I was pierced with a spear made from my father’s bones. I was going to die.”

Loki pauses here to gather himself. He has to continue before he loses courage, but he’s shaking so hard. He can’t look at Tony.

“I was going to die. In my last moments I went to my daughter and confessed all that I had done. I confessed that I was now scared to die, to lose you. She found a loophole in the spell. I don’t understand it much myself, so I will not try to explain it to you. But she found that if you shed tears born of love's grief for me, it would be possible to come back to you. So… so I did what was needed. I hoped, and I died. Then I awoke next to you on the beach and here we are.”

Loki turns to look at Tony finally, but can’t read his expression.

“You asked me if I loved you. Tony, you are my freedom, and the only thing I could love more than you would be my children. But I do not think you can hold that against me.”

The silence is broken only by raindrops and Thor’s sniffling.

“So,” Tony says finally, clearing his throat a little. “So you’re telling me that basically you had no idea what you were doing the entire time. You were winging it, the entire time. You gambled your life and my happiness, and won on a fluke.”

“Yes,” Loki says. “If there is one thing I can say for certain it’s that I know absolutely nothing, and have no idea what is happening. Ever.”

“You are an idiot,” Tony says, agonized. He grabs Loki’s face and kisses him. “What if I hadn't found the reactor? What if I hadn't cried? What if I hadn’t completed the spell after by giving you purpose and shape? You wouldn’t have ever regained your memory, your mind, anything that made you YOU!”

Loki looks over at Hela, who looks as confused as he feels. “What do you mean ‘completed the spell’? It was complete the moment you cried on the reactor.”

“But… Odin said…” Tony looks over at Odin, who looks apoplectic. “Oh my god...” Tony says, shaking suddenly with laughter, pointing at Odin. “It worked because you assumed I knew what the hell I was doing! You told me how to complete the spell and finish fucking you over, and you didn't even know it! You’re a fucking idiot!”

Odin leaps off of Sleipnir, flings gungnir across the tent carelessly, and hurtles towards Tony. But before he can lay even a finger on Tony, Jor springs forward from around Loki’s neck and attaches himself to Odin’s good eye.

Odin screams, falling to the floor, clawing at his face, while Jor determinedly works his jaws around Odin’s eye. In his panic Odin rips Jor away, pulling out his own eye, and flinging both away from himself with a horrifying scream.

No one moves.

Jor finishes eating the eye, then he transforms and stands up, wiping his mouth with satisfaction. “As it is said on Midgard, Grandfather: an eye for an eye.”

Odin howls in agony and rage. Loki is frozen in place, shocked beyond reason.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Sleipnir shimmer, and turns to watch as his son transform for the first time since the first cycle.

Sleipnir is tall, nearly seven feet. His skin is dark as the night sky, face long and angular, and beautiful. He resembles his father in skin tone and height, but his smile and his eyes are Loki’s. “Mother,” Sleipnir says, rushing forward into Loki’s embrace.

“My son,” Loki says, weeping. “This is a joy beyond imagining.”

“I cannot stay, I need to take grandfather back, but I will return soon,” Sleipnir says. “I love you, mother. I wish you happiness on your wedding day.”

“I have it. I have it,” Loki says through tears, watching his son turn away.

Sleipnir helps Odin stand. “Come on, grandfather. It will be alright, I know it will. We’ll get you to the healers and they’ll help with the pain, then you’ll rest a little, and in the morning it will be better. Maybe we can have cake in the morning, too. I’ll bring you some, yes?”

Odin stumbles, drawn forward by Sleipnir. “Yes, cake,” Odin says vaguely, every ounce of energy and fight gone. He looks like an old man, Loki realizes. “Cake will make it better.”

“Cake always makes everything better,” Sleipnir says, coming to a halt in the middle of the circle of burned grass outside the tent. It is still raining, but Sleipnir raises his head, letting the drops fall as they may. He smiles wide.

Then the bifrost carries them away.

“This is the best fucking wedding I’ve ever been to,” says Bucky, knocking back the last of his beer.

~*~

Having made love, they lie together sated and sore, catching their breath and reveling in the feeling of resting in one another's arms.

"Are you truly not angry with me?" Loki asks, curiously.

Tony snorts. "Oh, I'm livid with you, but not livid enough to not enjoy this."

Tony takes an opportunity to molest Loki quite thoroughly in demonstration, which nearly starts them off on another round, but they're both too exhausted. It was a trying day, as glorious as it was in the end.

Loki sighs gently. "I don't want your anger, but... I wouldn't change anything that I have done. It led me to this moment. All the pain and fear I have endured, caused, was worth today."

"It was pretty awesome. That cake was amazing," Tony says.

Loki chuckles. "I would suffer a thousand time what I have suffered if only I could eat another bite of that passion fruit and raspberry mousse cake."

Tony snorts and rolls over, dragging Loki's arm over his shoulders and drawing him closer. Loki drifts closer to sleep, but before he gets there he hears Tony say:

"I could live a thousand times, yet each life would only be complete for knowing you. You are my heaven."

And Loki cannot say anything, but he doesn't need to.

He falls asleep, freer than he's ever been, bound only to what his heart loves.

Chapter Text

Epilogue

One universe to the left:

 

A genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist named Loki falls in love with the maniacal deity/alien known as Tony, God of Inventors and Really Awesome Facial Hair.

 

Two universes to the right:

 

An averagely intelligent/poor/asexual/misanthrope name Tony comes out of her den of cats and books long enough to meet a brilliant, chaotic trans-woman named Loki, and gets in a fight over who gets to use the last dryer first. And then they fall in love when they discover they hate the exact same people.

 

Three universes to the right, a million years ago:

 

Two stars, one pulsing red light and the other pulsing green light, orbit each other in the darkness of space. They are known as "the lovers" and their orbital path is described as "the great dance" in the summer, and "the great battle" in the winter. The sentient species that inhabits the small, swampy planet that orbits these stars hold binding ceremonies on the eve when the planet is tilted furthest towards the lovers, in the hopes that the lover's dance will bless the unions.

 

A million universes to the left, a million years in the future: Two energies converge violently and mingle, and are forever changed because of each other, and forever better for it.

 

Every universe in between: Tony and Loki find each other, fight, fall in love, and change the world.

 

And it never ends.

Chapter Text

Look at this nonsense.

 

Chris Hemsworth photographed by Bruce Weber for Vanity Fair

 

Where was this picture when I started this damn thing?

 

Also keep an eye out around Halloween. I think I feel a short story coming round that time.

Chapter Text

The two guests, a young man and his father, which are seated at the booth in the back are in the midst of a very strange argument. The waitress tries to cover her nosiness with good service.

“More coffee?” she asks, jiggling a fresh pot at the father.

“I’m good, hon,” he says with a winning smile. The son rolls his eyes. She gets another table of guests seated close by so that she has more excuses to wander over.

The father leans in, eyes sparkling. “You need to understand--”

The son groans and rests his head in his hands. He appears to be about fifteen years old. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I said it was overrated. Please, can we drop this?”

“Absolutely not. Now, in order to understand why you are so completely wrong, I need to tell you about the night that you were conceived.” There is a wicked gleam in the fathers golden brown eyes, and while there are flecks of silver in his hair and wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiles, he is a vital and handsome man. The waitress almost recognizes him, thinks he might be someone famous, or used to be.

“Oh my god, pop, I don’t want to hear--”

“So it was a night like any other,” the father begins, sitting back and grinning wide. “Your dad and I were arguing.”

The waitress reaches the end of her shift before she can hear the rest of the story, and she passes her tickets on to her replacement with unusual disappointment.

--

Tony remembers it like yesterday.

“This holiday, more than any other that occurs on your idiot planet, is ridiculous,” Loki complains, holding a giant bag of Halloween candy two weeks before the big day. “Why do we have to placate costumed idiots with this sweetened excrement? Explain it to me again, and make it make sense this time.”

“Babe, I’m not gonna explain it again. It’s just a thing, okay? A time to let loose, dress up, ogle sexy women in skimpy outfits, get sugar wasted, listen to the Time Warp. It’s fun. Try to have fun.” Tony takes the bag out of Loki’s hand and dumps it in their cart on top of the other bags.

“The only one whom you will ogle this Halloween is myself,” Loki threatens.

Loki is almost physically incapable of just having fun. Over the following two weeks Loki binges on Halloween themed movies and television shows, for research purposes. He keeps a notebook and writes illegible notes. He hates horror films with a passion, especially the ones that heavily feature torture porn. Tony wonders if they are causing flashbacks.

Then Loki yells in frustration “She’s faking it!”

“What?” Tony asks, slightly confused.

“I know what real screams of pain sound like. It’s like she’s never been stabbed before,” Loki complains, then throws the remote at the screen, cracking it in half.

“Babe!”

“Oh don’t whine, you know I can fix it,” Loki sighs, waving a hand. The crack seals itself instantly.

“Then why do you do that, if you’re just going to fix it?” Tony asks, laughing a little in affectionate exasperation.

Loki leans over and kisses Tony thoroughly. “Don’t attempt to understand me, mortal.”

“Oh, mortal, huh?” Tony grins a little, resisting Loki’s attempts to deepen the kiss. “I always love it when you start with the ‘mortal’ crap. That’s how I know you’re gonna start ordering me to kneel.”

Loki grins, then tips Tony off the couch with a lazy hand. “Get to it, mortal.”

They stop watching the horror films, and move on to classic kid films.

Loki reviles Casper—“That is not what the spirits of the departed look like at all, nor is that how they behave.”

It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is met with raucous laughter—“Their heads are so massive, and they are such fools!”

However, Loki is immediately enamored with The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Addams Family, and concludes that “Halloween seems to be a time to revel in the monstrous and strange.”

Tony nods. “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.”

“Well why didn’t you say that to begin with?” Loki asks, a strange gleam in his eye.

After kid’s films they move on to television. They binge watch every Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror, but Loki doesn’t seem to be amused by anything. Tony keeps his disappointment to himself—no one can be perfect, after all, not even a demi-god.

Then Tony introduces Loki to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Loki becomes obsessed with Spike. “He is not a hero, he is selfish and dark, and yet he is necessary for their success,” Loki muses, an edge of sadness to his voice. Tony is smart enough not to say anything, but he squeezes Loki’s hand.

Tony does some quick mental math when they complete the entire series before Halloween. “How?” he asks Loki.

Loki never admits outright to engaging in time-fuckery, but Tony is fascinated and convinces Loki to use the time-fuckery to assist with more licentious endeavors. They have an inexplicable weekend that lasts nearly a week in Vegas.

When it’s finally time to pick their costumes, Tony asks Loki if he wants to go with a couple’s costume.

Loki considers it. “Hm, yes. If we go as a pair, then others are less likely to try to flirt with you.”

Tony decides not to mention that some people enjoy a challenge. Also, they’re only going to an Avengers party, and no one on the team wants to bone him. “Okay, cool. Who should we go as?”

Loki’s eyes gleam. “Buffy and Spike.” Obviously.

Being married to an all-powerful Wizard means never losing a costume competition.

However, when the magic swirly biz dies down, Tony is tall and dressed in tight black leather, and Loki is petite and perky.

“I…” Tony is at a loss for words. “Why am I Spike?”

“He reminds me of you,” Loki says fondly, groping Tony’s ass through the leather pants.

Tony is flabbergasted. “In what universe am I anything like Spike?”

“You’re sassy, selfish, dangerous, self-destructive, and not really the hero type.”

 Coming out of anyone else’s mouth that sentence would be an insult, but Loki says it with such affection that Tony actually feels himself blushing.

The Halloween party is being held at Sam’s house, and the “entrance fee” is a bag of Halloween candy. Tony drops five bags in the bucket at the front.

Sam whistles as he and Loki walk in. “We need to make it a rule that you magic wielding bastards aren’t allowed to use magic for your costumes.”

He points deeper into the house, where Stephen Strange is a literal dragon, and Wanda is a terrifying clone of the Black Widow. Natasha herself is dressed like a ballerina, but she keeps checking out Wanda’s, or rather her own, ass. “God I look good,” Natasha keeps saying into her beer.

The party is pleasant and relaxed until Thor makes an appearance, long enough to challenge Loki to a game of beer pong and break a table in the process.

“Oh stop yelling,” Loki sighs, waving his hand to fix the table. “It’s just a bit of fun.”

“It’s really creepy,” Clint says over Tony’s shoulder, watching as Sam chastises the brothers. “It’s Buffy’s body, but Loki’s voice.”

“He was doing her voice earlier, but it was even creepier,” Tony assures him.

Clint thinks about it and shudders.

Eventually they are inundated by trick-or-treaters. Loki hovers at the edge of the living room and watches as Sam and Natasha give out candy to small children.

Loki sighs a little. “It has been many years since my children were so small. I miss those years, much as I value the people they have become. I wish I could hold each version of them all at once.”

Tony has never had a child and cannot imagine what it must feel like for Loki. He watches the kids and tries to see what Loki sees.

The party ends when Sam announces that he and Natasha are going to start having Halloween sex, and everyone better get the hell out.

Tony and Loki travel home in a flash of familiar green and gold. They are both slightly tipsy, and end up making out on the couch like teenagers. Loki pulls away slightly from where he is giving Tony the biggest love bite of his life and asks “Would you ever want to have a child with me?”

It would be easy to laugh off such a serious question, which is Tony’s first instinct, but Tony takes it seriously for once. Tony thinks about Fen and Jor, and Hela, and how much he has enjoyed getting to know Loki better through them. He thinks of Loki, and tries to imagine Loki as a small child; he would have been precocious, easily offended and delicate, desperate for a friend but doomed to be lonely. He thinks of himself as a small child, looking for a friend in his father and finding only absence and disappointment.

“I’m not sure, it depends. How do you raise children? What is the most important thing?” Tony asks.

Loki closes his eyes, the face different but the expression so familiar. Loki is going inwards, trying to find the truest answer he can give. As a god of lies he is most focused when trying to tell the truth. “When raising a child I have found the most important thing is to love them, and then love them some more.”

Tony exhales shakily and kisses Loki with every ounce of faith and devotion he can summon. “Yes, I want to have a child with you.”

--

Tony drops his fork on his plate like he’s dropping the mic. “And that is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television show ever filmed.”

“Oh my god, pop,” Howie groans for the millionth time. “You didn’t even address any of my points! You just told me a really gross story about you and dad… doing it. The show didn’t even really have anything to do with--”

“I’m a master debater, son,” Tony interrupts, waggling his eyebrows. “If you can’t dazzle them with your charm, baffle them with your bullshit. Anyway, let’s pay and get the hell out of here. Your dad’s gonna be back soon.”

Tony leaves a generous tip, and slings an arm around Howie’s shoulders. “Did I ever tell you about the night we named you?”

“If it involves you and dad having sex after an argument, I don’t want to know about it,” Howie complains.

Tony ignores him. “So it was a night like any other, and your dad and I were arguing…”

Chapter Text

I started writing this story in 2016. I posted Chapter 10 in response to Trump winning the presidency.

Nearly a year later, in October 2017, I had a mental breakdown. I had to call the suicide hotline. I had to walk away from my job. I shaved all my hair off. I lost the ability to enjoy the things I used to love, such as writing.

It was due to a lot of factors but the news cycle definitely didn't help. I had always been hopeless, angry, and bitter but it became a serious debilitating problem.

I was shaken down to my foundations and forced to look at myself, my choices, and decide what sort of person I wanted to be.

I began to rebuild, sometimes slowly, sometimes with such a rapid pace that things that used to be impossible for me became possible over night. I began to risk letting myself experience the beautiful pain of hope. I decided to see my anger as a valuable teacher, one that merely let me know when my sense of right and wrong had been violated and did not dictate my responses; I separated my behavior from my emotions, questioned my definition of right and wrong, my core beliefs about myself and the world around me. I learned that bitterness weighs me down, like rocks in my pockets, and began to try to let each hurtful moment I'd been clinging to go. I began to rise.

And as I rose I looked around me and saw so many others struggling with the same things, choosing for the first time to address it with themselves. I have grown, I have watched others grow--I have watched us rise.

I love Loki. I love trickster gods, those gods that tip the balance and swing us from stagnation and death into action and growth (whether we want it or not). I love Chaos.

Chaos is destruction and creation.

I was nearly destroyed, but I have chosen to change. I have become stronger, kinder, more willing to be vulnerable and open. I believe the United States was nearly destroyed (and might still be destroyed), but I believe we have a chance to take what we've learned and thrive. We can choose to look at the things that have been broken--trust in each other and our institutions, civility and compassion, unity--and rebuild. We can choose to change.

This isn't an issue that plagues only the United States. There is no border on this. I think right now we are, as a species, at the edge of a precipice. We will live or die as one, this pandemic illustrates that.

We choose every day what kind of world we live in. We cast votes with our words, our actions, our beliefs. You might believe that one person doesn't make a difference, but may I remind you of the following individuals:

Ghandi
Martin Luther King Jr.
Nelson Mandela
Oskar Schindler
Rosa Parks
Harriet Tubman

This a short, short list, but I hope you get my meaning. These people were just people, with virtues and flaws like the rest of us. They cast their votes for a better, kinder, freer world and were willing to put their lives, freedom, and comfort on the line. They willingly took on the burden of hope in what must have felt like a hopeless world. They resisted the seductive call of violence, knowing that violence begets violence, and instead used their anger to grow steel spines and stone faces, to withstand the harshest cruelties the world could toss at them. They were vulnerable enough to release their bitterness, which only ever isolates us, in order to connect with others.

This is all that separates any of us from any of them: The willingness to abandon what you have for what you could have. The willingness to befriend your anger without letting it rule you. The willingness to be vulnerable again and again, and again.

The willingness to cast your vote for a better world and mean it.

It begins with you. It ends with you.