Chapter 22: You expect the wise man to be wiser

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)

Queen Frigga was observing her son as he pushed around his food on his plate, having eaten only a few bites while brooding. Already their dinner the day before had been quiet, Thor had simply shown her some books he had purchased (and she had tried very hard to not look as surprised as she was over that), as well as some baking forms and ingredients. Chocolate indeed was a valued treat to be introduced to Asgard, and the chef who had eventually appeared was thrilled to bits by the new challenge to create these tiny cakes called muffins.

He had not lost a word about his friends and how he had thrown them out of his chambers. What he did was order both Aron and Lejs that they were to inform the guards should something like this happen again when Thor was off-world.

She had never seen him like this before. Thor was not quiet. He was loud, he was happy, he was vibrant and… and always hungry. Sometimes, his appetite still reminded her of his time as an adolescent, with limbs too long for his body, with too much power in those muscles, the bottomless pit he called a stomach never really filled back then.

Loki had been even worse. He had been a wispy child, diminutive and small, smaller than most children of his age, with arms and legs as thin as sticks. When puberty hit, her baby boy grew to his recent height in under three years and had started showing his talents as a very gifted mage, inhaling everything that resembled food, managing to even out-eat Thor more than once. As soon as Loki had filled out his armor, muscles finally shaping his body into that of a, still sinewy and lanky, warrior, his appetite normalized.

When Thor pushed away his plate, it was still more than half full, and Frigga used her napkin to dab the corners of her mouth before signaling the servants that they were done with their meal and they could clear the table. They did so with confused glances towards their King.

The chef had sent up some treats fabricated out of the chocolate Thor had brought the day before, praising the sweet concoction, and the possibilities it gave him to create. He was asking for more books, for more recipes, for… more.

Thor simply remembered Darcy's words before she had sunk her teeth into her cupcake and eaten it in silence.

"Chocolate doesn't ask questions. Chocolate understands."

He did not really understand what she wanted to say with that, after all, chocolate was not a sentient being. He nevertheless put one of the tiny balls the chef had created (yep, the cookbook also had a pralines section) into his mouth and started chewing.

It was sweet, but he had expected nothing else. When he bit down on the globe, something liquid, tasting of alcohol poured out, making him hum in surprise. The next one he savored more slowly, licking off the chocolate shell before being amazed by yet another flavor on the inside.

By the time he had put his third praline into his mouth, Frigga had left her chair at the other end of the table and sat down right next to her son.

"You are awfully quiet today, my Dear", she said, having him lift his head, directing ocean blue eyes at her.

"I have been talking the entire day, Mother. It is a tiring feat weeding out the self-interested, smarmy bootlickers Odin has gathered around himself, blocking any progress that I might initiate by talking in circles and reaching no conclusion. How is it so hard to find noblemen with an opinion that serves more than their own merit? They are exploiting their sinecure until the peasants have hardly enough to live, while whining at the crown that the taxes are too high. Restoring the Bifrost appears to be of minor interest, though."

He looked so helpless when he held her gaze. "How could he let Asgard's court deteriorate to this? To a bunch of self-serving lickspittles, drunk on their power, regardless of their people? Has he been encouraging them, or did he simply not care? When was the last time Odin did something for the entirety of Asgard, and not just his merry Round Table that approved of everything he said?"

The blonde Goddess did not know what to answer to these inquiries. Odin's decisions had been more than questionable at times, but in the end, it was his right as the King to refuse being challenged about his decisions.

"When was the last time that he told his people the truth? When was the last time he did not wriggle out of a contract he closed? When was the last time he did not steal, lie, and betray? He claims these to be Loki's features while he is the one obscuring his own history. He is the one hiding his own Mother. He is the one claiming to have traded his eye for the ability to see the future while in truth he lost it in the war. He is turning the entirety of Asgard against the other realms, declaring them monsters, denouncing magic-users, claiming their ephemerality makes Midg… humans insignificant. How is this the ruler over the nine realms? How is this man the All-father?"

Frigga knew that there was so much more Thor wanted to address. So many things he had learned with the Odinforce coming to him. Hliðskjálf was one of the few things that Asgard had obtained through keeping a contract, however, instead of gaining an eyeball as the myths described, Mimir, the creator of the Throne, had been recompensed adequately already by Buri, Odin's Grandfather. Thor was the fourth in the line of Asgard's Kings who was experiencing its full capabilities.

She wanted to answer: "But he is the All-father no more." Thor, however, interrupted her before she could open her mouth to answer.

"How could he bear it, Mother? Tell me! Jotunheim is dying and he was willing to simply let it happen. Midgard is targeted by the Mad Titan and Odin did not move a finger. His orders were to bring Loki back and not involve myself in the demise of these lowly creatures on Midgard. He stole Laufey's son, claiming to use him as a token to broker peace, while the Jotnar believed him dead and were moribund already due to the loss of the casket. He told me my brother was dead, he did not even look for him, and I know he had the resources. I can see the Chitauri, or what is left of them, what the Man of Iron did not extinguish with the nuke the mortals have developed. Tell me! Tell me there is a reason behind this, because the Norns know I have found none!"

Thor had gotten louder, more agitated with every sentence, with every question that was running through his head, making Frigga freeze in her chair, while the servants retreated from the dining chamber.

The actions of the Lady Pepper on Earth had shown him that he could not act with benignity right now. Decisions had to be made that would not be popular, but necessary. Things could not continue like this lest he wanted Asgard to face her inevitable demise. Unfortunately, he could not rely on a squadron of loyal solicitors to tear into the foul side of Asgard's court. Another thing he had to put onto his to-do list. Find someone like Emerson Bonner and sic him or her onto all the antediluvians that occupied the golden halls.

Frigga reached out, softly caressing her son's bearded cheek before catching one of his hands. She had no answers for him. She was coming up with more questions by herself the more she thought about the past centuries of Odin's reign.

"I know not, my Dear. But rest assured, I will stand by your side, no matter how you may use my advice, and if I may simply serve as a means to vent. How many of those lickspittles have you thrown out of Valaskjálf?"

Thor sighed, reaching out for another of the chocolate balls, thoughtfully chewing on it.

"Not enough, I am afraid. Odin has left such a mess, I do not even know where to start cleaning up. I feel rather unprepared for such a feat, Mother. I wish Loki was here… he would know…"

Interrupting himself, Thor stared at his free hand, his fingers that were playing with another praline before shoving it into his mouth.

"Friend Tony's surgery was successful. I will visit them tomorrow afternoon to make further plans for Loki coming back to Asgard. Measures have been taken already during my last visit to Midgard with the President of the United States, and more countries are to follow. I have made Loki Asgard's ambassador on Midgard officially, with Fandral as his constant security detail. Volstagg, Hogun, and Sif are not part of the committee that will assess the threat by Thanos. I have also changed the guard rotation, and I will have Heimdall on a very tight leash, maybe I will have to find a replacement for him should he continue his open aversions against my brother."

This got him a gasp from his mother, after all, Heimdall had been at his post since the Bifrost had been created.

"There will be Migardians… humans… visiting Asgard and I made it very clear that I want everyone on their best behavior. The friend Clinton has volunteered to act as a witness for Loki's innocence. The Man of Iron can further provide evidence for the mind control. I also want him to look at the plans of the Bifrost, as our engineers still cannot make any rhyme on them. Maybe I can convince the Lady Pepper, Dr. Banner, and the Lady Darcy to come along…"

At Frigga's questioning frown, Thor chose to explain a bit more in detail why he had come up with this idea.

"Friend Tony and the Lady Pepper got married only a few days ago. And with all the trouble we have caused, with him getting severely hurt on Loki's behalf, I feel we should recompense them. The Lady Pepper has expressed the wish for a Honeymoon far away from human technology and prying eyes, or anything that might hinder her from being with her beloved. I suppose Asgard could provide this environment."

He did not say that he wanted to show the strawberry blonde mortal that Asgard consisted not only of brainless idiots that blindly followed their leader, making no difference between friend or foe upon a given order.

Frigga cocked her head to one side when she inquired his reasons for bringing the man he had called Dr. Banner, and the Lady Darcy.

Her eyes narrowed at his explanations, especially when he slightly blushed upon mentioning the human female again. His friend, the Man of Iron, would not be willing to leave the physicist behind. No matter what Dr. Banner might have to say.

The Lady Darcy…

She had studied the politics of Midgard, and Thor hoped for some advice from an outsider. Moreover, he had promised to show her how to ride a horse.

Frigga had to bite her own lip to keep from teasing him when he hid from further explanations by stuffing some more of the chocolate treats into his mouth.

"You had a very busy day, I see", was what she said instead.

Odin would have meddled instantly with his son's interest in a mortal. He already did. Odin's lack of pressure in regards of repairing the Bifrost was not only caused by the inability of their engineers. The mortal goat was a sore topic, something he was willing to outwait, fifty or sixty years were nothing, by then she would have perished and Thor would have found another object of interest.

Frigga did not know how the young friend of her son's initial chosen one had gained his interest, but she vowed to herself to give her son free reign over his life for once. There had been enough interference, when it came to Odin, Thor should have married Sif already a long time ago, and would be breeding tiny, obedient Asgardians by now. That Sif's personality would make her anything but a good mother did not matter at all.

"I shall have Fulla prepare your guest quarters. Also Loki and Fandral will stay at your wing of the palace. Should we prepare a program for our visitors? Some sightseeing? Fensalir for the newly-weds? Your friend Tony might be interested in visiting Iðawǫllr…"

Thor actually smiled as his mother started making plans for their visitors while he annihilated the rest of the chocolate. Coming to think of it, it was the first time since he had arrived back from Midgard that he thought something to be funny, taking his mind, if only briefly, from all the dreaded but necessary changes he was inflicting, making not only friends among Asgard's noblemen.

He did not care. These changes were overdue, they would have to learn to cope.

But if they could make something more than a tiresome diplomatic strategy meeting out of this visit, he would be the first raising his hand to participate.

He actually made a mental note to free some hours to fulfill his promise of showing the person who had introduced him to this addictive concoction called chocolate how to ride a horse.

Darcy blinked tiredly as she watched Pepper caress Tony's hair. She did not really know why she tagged along like a lost puppy, running after the first person showing just a hint of affection. Heck, she did not even know why nobody made a fuss that she claimed the chair in Tony Stark's hospital room, wrapped a blanket around herself and watched the elfin person that was her maybe-brother's wife climb on the bed, drape herself around the sleeping man and then do just this – caress the man's hair.

Maybe it was just that. The tiny, rather intimidating chance that she was related to said genius, that her mother had not lied all these years, that she might not be alone anymore and had the slight hope that this couple even liked her a tiny bit. Maybe this was what made her stick to them like chewing gum to the sole of a shoe.

She never knew that the feeling of wanting to belong somewhere, to have a family, was still there.

She'd thought it had died a long time ago. Sure, Jane sometimes treated her more like a family member than an employee. At other times she let her feel very directly who was the intern, though, and in the past months, when her pay-checks started to become irregular, and Jane actually mentioned that she was paying for everything else like living quarters, food, and what else came with travelling around the world when she dared asking, Darcy had reacted in the only way she knew – withdraw and think about alternatives.

She did not approach the topic of money again, but started thinking about asking for a grade and a final report, and moving on with her life and her real studies. She would end up writing the report, and be giving herself an A, anyway, because Jane couldn't be bothered with stuff like that, but that was just playing in her favor.

Wrapping her blanket a little tighter around herself, she found her gaze straying to the bed again, this time being caught by Pepper who never stopped running her fingers over Tony's scalp.

"I didn't thank you yet for feeding the masses in the Penthouse. It was really a big help in keeping them occupied and not worrying too much, so… thank you", the strawberry-blonde said softly, sending her a smile.

"I'm a stress-baker, so you're lucky there were so many people there, otherwise you'd be swamped with cupcakes", Darcy answered in a shy tone. Pepper intimidated her. That woman was everything she wasn't. Sophisticated, elegant, well-mannered, eloquent, and absolutely badass, at least when she considered what she had heard about the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D..

"Well… neither Tony nor J.A.R.V.I.S. let me anywhere near the kitchen. I couldn't cook to safe my life, and believe me, I have tried… Tony, though… He always says there isn't an ounce of a chemist in him, because that would mean Howard's genes at least left some trace. But he sure knows how to follow a recipe." And she actually liked it when he was cooking for her. The kitchen was a mess afterwards, and J.A.R.V.I.S. was complaining about how Tony managed to get things dirty that did not have any relation with kitchen utensils – but it was his controlled chaos, and it happened rarely enough that she savored it each and every time.

While Pepper sighed audibly in her self-inflicted nostalgia, Darcy laughed. "Sheesh, I'm no chemist, either. I never stick to a recipe. I once thought about opening a cupcake shop with a friend, but that would've meant that my cupcakes would've had to taste the same for every batch or people would get annoyed by my experiments – that's not how I work, I need a little chaos…"

Pepper just smiled softly, making Darcy blush and shyly wrap herself into her blanket even more when she stated: "I can see the two of you getting along really well."

She returned her attention back to her sleeping husband after that tiny conversation. She never would've thought that she voluntarily would spend this much time in a hospital bed – especially when it was not her who was hospitalized.

The things she was doing for this man…

She had propped up her head on one hand, lying on her side, watching her genius sleep, from time to time still glancing over to the chair in the corner where Darcy had finally given in to sleep after a few more minutes. She wanted to ask J.A.R.V.I.S. if the test was already done, even though it would most probably just be a confirmation of the obvious. She would have to reign in Tony once he figured out that he had a baby sister, or he would overwhelm the girl with his way of showing his affection, which meant he would either shower her with gifts, or set up a ridiculously big trust fund… or both of them would enter a snark-contest of epic proportions that neither could win – well, this actually might be fun.

She let her finger's rake through Tony's hair, thinking about all those times she had spent awake, right next to him, watching him sleep.

He'd most probably find it creepy, knowing that she was doing this. It was during those first weeks of what they did not even dare calling a relationship yet, when she had developed this habit. They had not jumped into bed immediately, after all, Tony was still recovering, and she did not put out on the first date. They did not dawdle, either, though, after all, somehow they'd been dancing around the issue for two years already. It was back then when she learned how close she had come to losing him, that she would watch him, thinking she was crazy, especially after all of those times she had wanted to strangle him in all those years she had been working for him.

She knew that Tony did not need much sleep – already before Afghanistan he'd done well with four or five hours per night. When he made her the CEO of Stark Industries she thought he finally realized that he needed help, rest, a vacation… back then, she did not know the entire story and the mass of problems he had to cope with, though.

The insomnia in the first few months after Afghanistan only partially stemmed from the nightmares and the posttraumatic stress. He had to sleep in a position he was not used to, so he worked until he keeled over and did not care how he slept.

The heavy metal poisoning just added to these problems. He had blamed the insomnia for the fatigue and digestive problems in the beginning, only having J.A.R.V.I.S. do some research when he started losing weight (and hair – Oh God, he'd been so terrified of going bald, even after he had the new element in the reactor) and his tongue was feeling like it was on fire. And he had told no-one, not wanting to be a burden, thinking they didn't care…

She remembered her frantic tries to reach him when Rhodey informed them about the explosion in Afghanistan, about the dead soldiers around the "Fun-Vee". She remembered J.A.R.V.I.S. going berserk on some Air Force and Army servers when she did not get the information they wanted with polite phone calls. When had her feelings changed? Was it really after he came back and did a 180 on his life? Was it before and she just denied it?

She remembered Obadiah's stoic mien when she did not give up looking for Tony instantly. She never told him about J.A.R.V.I.S.'s efforts to find his creator, and, in retrospect, she should have acted on her first instinct when he offered her the position as her PA with all the benefits he assumed Tony was getting.

She should have gutted him right there when he was oh so the opposite of helpful trying to find her boss.

It would have spared them so much trouble, and she had been wearing some regular leather pumps that day without any sentimental value, so she wouldn't have minded a little blood and gore.

But no, she had to ruin her satin Louboutins, one of Tony's first "I fucked up, please forgive me, Miss Potts" presents, when the reactor blew up, her adrenalin was still spiking weeks after that incident.

She got slightly paranoid about where Tony was and what he was doing (with J.A.R.V.I.S. happily conspiring in monitoring their genius) after that, and she did not even get to kiss him. And by the time he gave that accursed press conference announcing to the world that he was the frickin' guy in the tin can, she had convinced herself that being Tony Stark's girlfriend was a bad idea no matter how much she had wanted this kiss on that stupid balcony.

She had been thinking a lot about what might have been different had she reacted differently to his advances.

He wouldn't have had to suffer through the palladium poisoning alone.

Miss Romanov wouldn't have made it into a ten foot radius without getting her eyes scratched out.

Tony most probably would still be CEO and be miserable about it. He was way happier as the head of R&D.

She was way happier the way it was now. If things had taken a different turn, would she still be the PA? A celebrity wife, posting every yogurt she ate because her life was this dull?

She hoped that many things would change now that the threat of the shrapnel was gone and the reactor was housed differently in his chest.

Because it was not only Tony who wasn't sleeping well…

He was snoring ever so softly every time they spent the night together. He, who had always been sleeping on his belly or his side, was more or less forced to sleep on his back since the reactor had made any other position rather uncomfortable.

Sadly, though, this was something that was driving Pepper up the walls. Most of her adult life she had had her bedroom to herself, even more so after more or less unofficially moving in with her boss without him even realizing it four years into her job. It just did not feel right bringing anyone to Tony's house. Not that she had any time for dating, anyway.

Her bedroom was dark. It was quiet. Her alarm clock was the only illuminated thing in there, and she was not even used to someone breathing next to her. And it actually was just that – someone breathing a little louder than regular, because Tony was still self-conscious about the reactor and the scars around it, and was wearing shirts in bed, so the light of the reactor was not really an issue.

She could not sleep right next to him and it was driving her crazy, because she wanted to be close, wanted to be held or hold him. She wanted to share his bed. She just could not fall asleep with all the noise, and people who said that they didn't think that the noise of a snoring person, no matter how soft it was, was annoying were lying liars.

Tony had suspected that she regretted their relationship after she left his bedroom more than once in the middle of the night. And then he had tortured himself by trying to find another position that would not feel like the reactor was pushed even deeper inside his chest after he found out her reasons for leaving him to get some much deserved rest.

They had talked about it, and yes, Tony Stark could have an adult conversation, there were just very few people he let in on this secret, and then they tried to find a solution that did not result in sleeping in different rooms.

In the end, they figured out that he just had to slightly turn to the side, or prop his head up a little, and spooning was a position that gave him enough support that he could still breathe while lying on his side. Still, Pepper spent a lot of time awake, right next to him, though no longer because it was too loud.

Since the projects Stark Tower and Clean Energy for Everyone had taken off they did not see each other a lot, hence also her exception to her "no sex in the office" rule after missing each other for six long weeks that led to the creation of their cell-heap… Junior… their baby.

And here she was, once more watching him sleep, fingers combing through this thick, unruly hair, for the first time wishing he would open his eyes, instead of trying to not disturb him.

Snuggling closer she rested her head against his shoulder, one hand sneaking under the hem of his shirt, flattening on his stomach

"C'mon, Honey, wake up. Things have gone crazy in the tower… I need someone to mock everything, I'm getting way too serious… We had to hospitalize Loki, Fandral refuses to leave his side, and Bruce is hiding away somewhere… they're all so worried, and I need you to tell us that you're fine…"

Tony did not grant her wish immediately, and when he finally did, she also had succumbed to sleep. He opened his eyes for the first time a few hours later, astonished how exhausting it could be to simply move his eyelids. The weight on his shoulder and the hand resting on his stomach must have been Peps', because for nobody else it made sense to be this close and in his bed.

It was even harder to focus on something in the room, and that it was almost completely dark didn't make it easier. At some point he managed to make out the faint red glow of the light that marked J.A.R.V.I.S.'s active camera, the one of the countless eyes in the room that was watching him, without even moving his head.

He had to clear his throat before he was able to even make the slightest sound, and also the tiny sound he made took a lot of effort.

"Hey… J…"

It was the first time the artificial intelligence wished he had a body, any possibility to touch his creator would be relished in the moment. This notion, this yet unknown urge for a corporeal presence was something he would analyze later, though. For the moment, he was too relieved that the man had woken.

"Welcome back, Sir", was what he whispered, the words feeling slightly inadequate, just like his reaction to baby boy Stark a few days ago. Yay. YAY? He was the most evolved computer program on this planet, his computing power equaling that of the human brain. In some ways, he was even more evolved, he did not need to direct valuable resources into keeping up bodily functions – he could be almost everywhere at the same time thanks to the internet, and his connection to the arc reactor was not the only power source he could rely on… and still, in moments like these, he did not know what to say, and wished to be able to embrace his father.

The man in the bed smiled, closing his eyes again. He wanted to say that it was good to be back, but only managed to hum a "hmmm…", before falling asleep again.

J.A.R.V.I.S. kept his camera trained on the bed, monitoring not only his creator's life signs, but also Mrs. Stark's and his baby brother's, relishing a few moments of peace with his family before the next drama happened within the tower.

J.A.R.V.I.S. was talking to him. That was the first thing Bruce recognized over the sound of warm water falling into the shower basin.

That he lay there curled up in a fetal position was the next thing he registered, and it actually took some effort to move his head away from the spray and to start one of the breathing exercises that he had learned to keep his other side at bay.

" … you hear me? Please continue breathing steadily. Help is on the way."

By the time the door to his bathroom was pushed open, Bruce had at least an idea what might have triggered the panic attack – the last few days had been very stressful, he liked Tony and all the other people that made up their crazy little flatshare family. Tony was hurt, had to undergo surgery, and while everybody did their best to look confident, all of them knew that this could also end badly.

Now also Loki had collapsed, and General Ross didn't really seem to care about the restraining order that said he had to stay away from him and kept milling around at the base of Stark Tower.

Considering the height of the tower, he most probably was even keeping the distance he was supposed to keep. In the past few days he was so worried about Tony, Pepper, and in the end, also their Trickster God (he should stop with naming Loki like that immediately – it was bad enough that Tony was doing it all the time), that he had no time to think about himself.

This late afternoon when J.A.R.V.I.S. had declared that the surgery was over and that Sir was fine and put to sleep to fully recover had left all of them extremely relieved. Bruce had still been spending some time with Jane Foster, dissecting the flight data of MARK VII while the astrophysicist was mapping unknown star constellations that the suit had recorded.

She was mumbling to herself most of the time, talking to a non-present Darcy to take notes. J.A.R.V.I.S. had opened a holographic screen right next to her, listing her mumbling and saving said notes for the intern who was worrying over her maybe-brother and feeding the masses in the Penthouse he had returned to, eventually.

All of a sudden, though, he was alone. Fandral was glued to Loki's side anyway and had left when his friend was taken to the infirmary. Clint and Gabriel had actually wanted to wait until Stark was up and running again, trying to sneak into his room and also spend the night there, before leaving for London. Pepper, however, pointed out that Tony wanted leave for Asgard as soon as possible, and would really appreciate it if Clint would tell his side of the story.

The archer had nodded, and grabbed the young inventor while J.A.R.V.I.S. organized for Tony's driver to take them to the airport where the Stark Industries company jet would wait for them.

Pepper and Darcy had stayed in Tony's room.

And Bruce had time to think about his last encounters with Thaddeus Ross, ending up with another panic attack under his shower, once more featuring the guns on that helicopter that had been aiming at the Hulk during that fight at the Culver University…

Somebody crouched down right next to him, two fingers routinely checking his pulse before he was turned over, strong hands holding him in place as he struggled to get up and away. Panic was rising again, this time, though, more because he feared that the other guy might come out to protect him from whatever was just happening.

He forced himself to look into the ocean-blue eyes that were directed at him, red hair framing fair skin that without protection would have turned red immediately under the sun of all the places he had hidden out from Ross, from himself, from the world.

He knew that man. There was no threat. No reason to smash anything…

When the medical doctor moved his hands to the side of his skull, pushing away brunet hair that had gotten longer again since his last intermezzo with mankind, Bruce realized that his head actually hurt.

Owen's fingers came away with blood that was washed away immediately by the shower.

Bruce was trying to move away, shaking his head, and regretting it immediately, wincing as his head started throbbing, so he croaked out an additional "No… you should not touch my… blood. It's toxic…"

Owen simply drawled out an "Easy, there", helping Bruce to sit up with a few routine movements before switching off the shower and grabbing a towel to give the other man the chance to cover himself. The flashlight Loki had learned to hate appeared, checking the reactions of his pupils, before the trauma surgeon hummed contentedly, packing it away again.

"You've got a nasty laceration there. Might need some stitches. Do you feel dizzy? Nauseous?"

"I cannot find anything that would point to a concussion, Dr. Hunt. Dr. Banner appeared to be taking cover all of a sudden, hitting his head as he lowered himself to the floor of the shower basin. There are significantly elevated levels of gamma radiation, though, comparable to 111Indium used in scintigraphy. I suggest wearing gloves and a lead gown, as well as histoacrylic glue when taking care of the wound. The rest of his body seems to be insulating the radiation."

J.A.R.V.I.S. made sure that the water containing Dr. Banner's blood would be collected separately and be treated as radioactive waste, glad that he had talked his creator into also giving him the reign over this part of the house. Tony did not really understand why J.A.R.V.I.S. wanted to control the grey- and black water, but had inserted electronically controllable valves, anyway.

The artificial intelligence had also fired up his scanners by now, taking an even closer look at the physicist. Making a note that they still needed to work on the detection range, going to base pair resolution definitely would be necessary here, he investigated Dr. Banner's blood since they never got around to drawing any the day Sir had decided that he wanted to cure the Hulk.

Basic research on gamma radiation had shown that it mostly harmed blood cells, but also caused mutations in other tissue, leading to tumors and uncontrollable cell-division.

Bruce's entire body had been exposed to such a high dose of the radiation in the experiment that was supposed to recreate Abraham Erskine's serum that it very likely affected every single cell.

Sir had him do superficial scans first, analyzing Dr. Banner's anatomy – they had not yet reached the subcellular level when Mrs. Stark's relatives had reappeared and the inhabitants of the Penthouse enjoyed another movie session.

Now, J.A.R.V.I.S. had to realize that there would be no cure for the physicist.

He could make out 25 chromosomes in the haploid chromosome set, the two additional ones very likely generated through the destruction of the regular chromosomes which had been restored by the serum's ability to heal the body. Something had gone wrong, having the man end up with two chromosomes more than the regular human, alterations of so called junk-DNA between the necessary genes most probably leading to the ability to turn into the Hulk.

Losing the two additional chromosomes again most probably would be fatal. And somehow, J.A.R.V.I.S. believed that this was something that the physicist already knew, thus being this pessimistic about finding a cure.

Owen in the meantime shrugged, reaching out to grab the smaller man under his arms and helped him to get up and out of the shower.

"We still need to stitch you up, it's still bleeding." Turning to the toilet, the redhead made the other man sit down on the lid before he ripped off some of the paper, folding it to a packet before handing it to Bruce, gesturing for him to press it onto the laceration.

"Here. We can get rid of that appropriately in the sick bay. I'll get you some clothes, and then we can go down there."

Bruce was still dazed enough to simply nod, regretting it again as his head protested, and letting the surgeon help him into his clothes, following him like a puppy to the elevator. Actually, Owen was more steering him there than he was walking on his own in a pre-determined direction.

He finally jerked out of his daze as the needle pierced his skin for the first time, the lidocaine that Owen had used to numb it obviously not working as fast on him as it was working on a regular person.


"Welcome back to the living, Dr. Banner", a soft voice said, betraying the benevolent intent of the speaker with another sting, most probably Owen, adding another dose of the local analgesic.

He could see a shaving machine on a metal table right next to them. And some of his hair. How had he not noticed that the other man had shaved part of his head?!

The next time Owen pierced his skin with the needle he only felt some pressure, heard how the surgeon used the surgical clamps while he sewed the laceration. Bruce just sat there, heard Owen talk him through the procedure, how he applied the glue, efficiently closing the wound and keeping the radiation inside.

He only realized that the other man had asked him a question when Owen moved in front of him, crouching down to be at his eye-level.

"Dr. Banner?"

It made him blink three times in confusion, he was awake, he was aware of what was going on around him, still, apparently, he had missed something considering the worried look the other man was sending him.

"Maybe we should do some more tests, even though J.A.R.V.I.S. said it really was just the laceration."

Bruce shook his head, he really did not feel like being shoved into an MRT machine, or being poked at any more. He regretted the movement immediately, rolling his eyes about himself. He knew by now that his head hurt, so…

"I… what was the question?" he asked as the doctor pulled a chair close to be able to sit in front of him instead of crouching down. It had been a long day, actually, all Owen wanted to do by now was sleep. But, when duty called, you had to respond, no matter how crazy the day had been.

"I asked whether you wanted me to bandage the wound. It's closed and apparently healing already. But I thought you might feel better with a band aid over it. And I'd like to keep you in my little sick bay overnight."

"You like having your problem kids as close as possible, huh?" The physicist actually tried smiling, feeling too weary to really make an effort, though. How had this become his life? He used to be a world renowned scientist. Now, he was on the run almost constantly, and in the few moments he got to himself, the Hulk, his other self still haunted him.

The big guy knew that machine guns, rockets, whatever was thrown at him could not harm him. Why did he torment Bruce with images like these? He had spent so much time with Betty in the Hulk form. Why could he not remember those moments?

Owen did not answer immediately, just watched the other man who was playing with his fingers, eyes trained to the floor. Bruce Banner was not somebody to stand out. He was about Tony's height, just slimmer in his built, brown eyes, brown hair, dressing not to stand out. If he had not seen him naked half an hour ago, he would have expected the body of a man who did not have to work out to keep his weight, but also did not put any effort into, well, working out. Soft, a little belly maybe that was hidden by his clothes…

Bruce was all muscle, though. Sinewy, defined, as if he had control over every part of his body, all of the time… until he lost control to something bigger.

He saw a man on the run, not only from General Ross, but from himself and the things that had happened to him. He knew how Ross went after the Hulk, the pictures had made it to the news no matter how much the military tried to keep them under their wrap.

Thunderbolt Ross was hunting a civilian with the heaviest artillery he could get his hands on. And while the Hulk could withstand the impact physically, the mental aspect was something different.

"For how long are you having panic attacks like these, Bruce?" he asked softly, folding his hands in his lap as the other man's eyes shot up, staring at him, as if he never really had considered taking cover in his shower a panic attack. When he did not answer, Owen simply continued.

"I don't say that you are crazy, or in need of a shrink. But I don't think that this happened the first time. And I guess it also won't have been the last time. I for sure don't know how it is to lose control like I guess it must feel when you turn into the Hulk, because I don't think it's willingly all the time – but… I think you should try to do something against it before you wake up because your girlfriend's flat mate it hitting you with something because you're trying to strangle her in your sleep."

Bruce mirrored Owen's gesture by now, sitting there, his hands folded in his lap, briefly wondering how he had no real memory of putting on some sweatpants and a t-shirt before coming down to the infirmary.

"The thing in the shower… happened before… when I was on the run the last time. I… I still was trying to cure the Hulk, a guy at Culver was trying to help me… Ross somehow got wind of it, blew up most of their lawn, almost killed his own daughter, and I woke up in a cave with Betty right next to me. I normally don't remember what the… the other guy did when he's on a rampage… but when we were in this hotel room, when I was showering, I… I saw this helicopter, and how he was firing at me… how Betty was still there… and I had to get her out of there…"

And not only Betty had been there. There had been students, people walking their dogs, children… and Ross just marched in there with two tanks, a helicopter and the obviously God-given right to hunt down Robert Bruce Banner.

"Somehow it's always copters that trigger stuff like that", the redhead muttered, getting a curious look from the man sitting on the other chair.

"Cristina had to take off the ceiling fan because it was one of my triggers. Certified PTSD, here, went to psychotherapy and whatnot. 's not easy to overcome the come on, I'm not crazy, I don't need no shrink feelings, but once I admitted to myself that I was endangering not only myself, but also the people around me, it was easier to swallow my pride and get some help."

Bruce sighed at that. You could not simply psychoanalyze away the Hulk. The restraining order had been approved, it should keep Ross at bay, right?

"How long do you think he will give a rat's ass about some paper signed by a civilian judge when he is hunting military property? That's what he calls you, Bruce, you know that. I think it's time to strike back. Stop running. Defend yourself. Bruce. Not the Hulk. This person is torturing you. He is terrorizing you. He's making you sick. Ross may say that he does not care about public opinion. But he's running for a political post, wants to be secretary of the state once, I quote, this sissy Ellis won't make his second turn. What do you think he will do when he finally got this post, all this power?"

This was something the physicist did not even want to think about. While the Hulk seemed to be Ross' favorite little project, he never denied being on the side of the people who wanted to lock away every person with special abilities. The mutant problem was something many politicians had on their screen, and it was hardliners like Ross who were routing for the drastic solutions.

"Think about the image damage it would do if you, a hero who defended the planet, who saved one of its saviors, makes it public how Ross initiated a man hunt, one that was not approved by any political instance, how it is affecting your personal life and health. You would do the entire planet a favor if you stopped his political ambitions before they really start blooming."

Bruce just stared at Owen for a while. While he had seen himself as the victim in this mess, he never had thought about using it to his favor. It was true, while Ross certainly was dangerous and held all the power, it would be rather easy to turn all of this against him. Unless…

"Unless he finds a ways to really declare me military property, a prototype, not a human being anymore. What will happen then?"

"We'll dig out Captain America, wave his boyish good looks at the camera, state that nobody would ever dare to withdraw his human rights, after all, he is the prototype, call Ross a fascist, and see what happens."

That finally got a snort out of Bruce, a tiny smile. Owen just shrugged.

"Or you just go green on him and let the Hulk discuss this matter. He's been pretty good at defending you against the bolt head." By the look that the physicist sent him now Owen judged that he never had seen it this way, but started contemplating it now. Most of the time, it really had been Ross who brought out the Hulk. It had been live threatening situations each and every time the general came after him. Ross never even thought about the diplomatic way, about asking for Bruce's co-operation. He deemed him a monster and went after him, negating every ounce of humanity, of intelligence, of sentience his alter-ego might possess.

"I'd rather avoid going green, I like the clothes J.A.R.V.I.S. bought me", Bruce admitted, running a hand through his hair and accidentally touching his wound.

"Ouch… I guess I do want this band aid."

Owen rose with a groan, feeling the previous days and nights in his bones. As long as he was taking care of Tony, as long as it had not been sure that he was out of the woods he just kept going, not really feeling the exhaustion. He had let Cristina and everybody else of the team sleep, while he had been playing nurse, shrink, babysitter and surgeon at the same time.

He would take a vacation in the hot tub in his bathroom after thoroughly sleeping through the next day – once he was sure that Tony would not kick the bucket, Loki would not develop spontaneous seizures, and Bruce would not suddenly decide to become a hermit on top of a Tibetan mountain.

He only realized that he had talked to himself – and aloud – when Bruce started giggling right behind him, sending the other man a glare as he turned around with some adhesive tape strips.

"You are not allowed to comment, Mr. Banner. If there's a person in here who really needs a vacation far, far away from all this shit it is you."

He was still taping a grinning Bruce when there was a knock on the door, and Darcy was sticking her head into the room.

"Hi guys. I just wanted to let you know that Tony just woke up – and you might not want to check up on him because I barely made it out of the door unnoticed while he was busy making out with Pepper. I don't wanna be there when my maybe-brother celebrates his survival, seriously."

Bruce snorted again, while Owen made a face. First of all, Tony should be in no shape to do anything more than open his eyes, take a brief look around, and go back to sleep after being anesthetized for most of the day. Making out and other activities for sure were not on the table.

Besides that…

"You do know that you are talking about my sister, right?"

Darcy just grinned.

"Yep, but you're a big boy, and a doctor, so I guess you know where the babies are coming from. I'm gonna have J.A.R.V.I.S. lead me back to my room now, downstairs, because, seriously, I'd get lost without a navigation system in here. So… just don't go in there, ok? I totally wanna have them some us-time, and maybe a little maybe-niece or maybe-nephew comes out of that, so I'm a little bit selfish here… and… uhm… so… yeah… gonna head out of here. G'night everyone, Brucie, you owe me the story of how you hit your head, did Jane throw something at you because you dared touching one of her doohickeys glued together by Barbie-band-aids? I should stop talking… been awake too long, didn't get enough sleep in the past days… worrying is exhausting, and I don't even know if I'm related to him… anyway, going to bed, now. Hehe, take me to bed, Jarv!"

She turned around, waving at no-one in particular, laughing when the artificial intelligence answered with an amused "It will be my pleasure, Miss Lewis. Please head towards the elevator."

The two men just shared a look.

"She definitely has Tony's ability to talk a mile a minute without making much sense, or covering thirty different topics in three sentences. J.A.R.V.I.S., the DNA test already done?"

"I am finished with the test, Dr. Hunt. However, I would like to inform Sir of the results first. I hope you understand. And Miss Lewis was exaggerating. Sir has gone back to sleep after waking up already for the second time. Mrs. Stark is awake and has asked whether it is alright to let Sir sleep. I have taken the liberty to affirm her question."

Both Drs. nodded, sharing another look. Actually, Tony should get all the rest he needed.

Bruce avoided scratching his head when he looked at Owen who was still shaking his head, amused about the young woman's ramble.

"How the hell did I end up as Brucie also with her?!"

Tony was still groggy in the morning when he opened his eyes for the third time, though this time he at least didn't feel like closing them again immediately to continue sleeping. Instead, he annoyed both his cardiologist and his wife to tell him in detail how the surgery had gone and what had happened in the tower while he was out.

Cristina was having none of that, listening to his heart, checking the sutures around the new reactor, and bringing the inventor up to date on what else Eír had found and healed during the surgery.

Both Pepper and Tony did not really know how to feel about learning that he had just escaped developing pancreatic cancer. Considering his lifestyle before Afghanistan, the light case of arteriosclerosis was actually something he'd expected.

According to the Æsir healer he had been surprisingly healthy for a man who had been through all the things Tony had survived, including heavy metal poisoning and the exposure to the radiation in deep space. All in all he'd been practically restored to a 20 year old on the inside, which of course made him joke on Pepper keeping herself a boy toy.

The news that both Bruce and Loki had been on the receiving end of a currently dead to the world Owen's inpatient care had made the engineer antsy. He was nonstop worrying for Loki, this much was clear after more or less adopting the young God not even a day after dragging him out of the printer room. The poor kid shouldn't have to deal with Tony's health issues, especially not being monitoring him this closely that he would feel a bone saw.

And Bruce… well, even though he was feeling slightly guilty for thinking this, a panic attack in the shower was better than the Hulk going on a rampage in the Penthouse.

"Is he alright?"

"Owen stitched him up, and I guess they had a heart to heart on how shrinks are not always the enemy", Cristina answered with one of her half smiles. To be honest, this was something she had always admired about her husband… err, ex-husband. He was working on his problems, also not shying away from psychotherapy. It had been her who had been reluctant in the beginning, shying away from the stigma that involving a therapist still carried, like putting a tramp stamp that said "mentally unstable and too weak to deal with it" on you.

Obviously, he was not always this determined – he had let his relationship with his sister deteriorate for quite some time. Actually, she felt flattered, after all, he was taking this effort for her. They'd had a bumpy road ahead of them already back then, but they'd been happy most of the time.

There were times, and these times had gotten more frequent lately, where she regretted this one moment that had torn them apart. Now that she had reached everything, had been a surgeon to her hearts content, she could not help thinking what would have been…

"Well, Ross definitely needs a shrink. Or some really good happy pills", Stark interrupted her thoughts about would've could've. She could not turn back the time, Owen was married, and she'd better stop reflecting over something she could not change anymore.

Cristina just hummed as an answer, making the engineer sit up to expose his back and listen to his lungs. They had sounded alright already with the old casing, better than the surgeon actually thought they should have after seeing just how far the original case reached into his chest, definitely putting pressure and strain on the underlying organs.

When she was done examining her highest ranking celebrity patient, she took a step back from the bed, watching the inventor and his wife. Pepper had left it only reluctantly, vanishing only for a minute to one of the sinks to brush her teeth and make herself a bit more representable, not knowing that their cardiologist took some satisfaction from knowing that also Pepper Potts woke up with a bed head and hair sticking into every possible direction.

"Alright. From my side, you're as good as new. Avery did a good job connecting your skin to the frame, and J.A.R.V.I.S. actually worked his magic on making the entire reactor small enough to be housed in the artificial chest bone. Eír has been healing any incisions and whatever else she could find, and since we only inserted the new reactor after all of that, you should not develop any kind of inflammation. I'd like to have another look at you, soon, though. This is the first arc-reactor-driven pacemaker that I've implanted, and while it was only a benefit before that it was working also like that, now it's its main function. Your sinus node is still damaged, Mr. Stark, and this has to be monitored."

Tony opened his mouth, first of all to remind her that Mr. Stark had been his father, and to tell her that monitoring his heart had been J.A.R.V.I.S.'s job since he got back from this accursed trip to Afghanistan. Pepper grabbed his hand though, talking before he could even make a sound.

"We will make another appointment as soon as Tony is back from Asgard. I heard you are applying for a position at Johns Hopkins? Boston would be a good option for us, no matter if we stay in New York or go back to Malibu."

In her mind, the CEO of Stark Industries was already going through all kinds of PR nightmares that would flare up once the news got out of Tony Stark's heart condition. They maybe could sell it as him seeing a cardiologist for preventive measures, maybe dig out (or fabricate) some medical history of Howard or Maria that justified monitoring his health without admitting that he really needed medical attention.

While this thought made the strawberry blonde frown and cringe a little, because she still had to tell her husband about the real circumstances of his parents' deaths, Cristina grinned.

"I don't have the job yet, you know? And with my rather complicated personality, I would not count on it, yet. Sure, they won't get anyone better than me, but many would deal with the second-best, or even tenth-best just to not have to deal with me. But you're a rich guy, just fly me in, huh?"

Tony just grinned back. He had so many boot-lickers around him, telling him what they thought he wanted to hear while only thinking about their own benefit. He was forthright person, not dancing around topics most of the time (hence Pepper's difficulties to see that when telling her about what a girlfriend would do meant that he wanted her to be this girlfriend), and he appreciated this feat also in other people.

"Well, next to J.A.R.V.I.S. you are the expert in arc reactor-driven pacemakers, so who else should I consult? So, what's the verdict, Doc, can I get out of this bed and up to my Penthouse where there's my couch and people I like and… well… food…? Seriously, I'm hungry, I'd also eat healthy stuff, so can I go up?" Tony asked, the grin still plastered on his face.

As if to emphasize the last part of his sentence, his stomach started growling loudly, making both women in the room laugh.

Eír had waited until Fandral had left the hospital room Prince Loki had been accommodated in before even thinking about asking the ethereal voice in the ceiling for being transported to this level of the tower again.

King Thor had left the warrior as his brother's security detail, not that a seasoned mage like Loki would have needed anyone taking care of this. Amongst mortals, a wave of his hand and a simple spell would have been enough to fell a rather large amount of them without breaking into sweat.

What she had not taken into consideration until the day before, when the Prince had collapsed upon witnessing Dr. Torres cutting into the Lord Stark's bones, was how his training had been focused on honing his combat skills only.

He never thought about the many other aspects of his gift, most probably dismissing any healing magic that went beyond being able to treat battle wounds for as long as it needed to get a real healer to the injured combatants.

On Asgard, it was a woman's prerogative to carry this gift. Except for the All-Father, Loki was the only male mage. She had never taken into consideration that the Prince might be no Ås, though. She had never questioned the fact that Odin was able to use magic. He was the All-Father, so shouldn't he be special?

When she thought back, though, all those years, when she still had been young, nothing more than a nurse in the healing wings of the palace, back when Borr was still King and Odin had been the Crown Prince, she thought she should have known better. She could not remember Borr being able of any magical gestures… and Queen Bestla had not been seen for centuries already back then.

There had been rumors that she had left Borr. Or that someone had taken her. That she had died. The court never really commented on her disappearance. There was no funeral. No explanation. From one day to the other she was simply obliterated from Asgard's history, and people at some point didn't put any effort in remembering an obviously unwanted Queen.

What she did know was that Borr and Odin did not really get along, and that the Crown Prince hated everything Jotnar with a passion, only waiting for the day they would give him enough reason to extinguish them.

They gave him this reason a little more than five centuries into his own kingship, and he took it without a second thought.

The child he brought home from the battlefield did not look like a Jotun. Even the soul forge recognized nothing more than an Æsir infant who should have suffered hypothermia considering the circumstances the King claimed to have found him in.

It was a wispy child, even for the lowest Æsir standards, and the head healer at this time thought loudly that it might be better to let nature take its claim. Odin had raged long enough for the Queen to show up, witness the head healer being dismissed from his position, and Eír being promoted in the same breath – with the strict order to keep the child alive, not matter the cost.

She had thought she knew Loki inside out. She had treated every sunburn, every food intolerance, every broken bone or torn muscle after he had to join Thor in combat training. She was one of the few people who knew right away that the child was not of Odin's and Frigga's blood, one of the few people who knew he would never have a claim on the throne, no matter how much better suited he proved to be in the following decades and centuries.

In the beginning, Odin seemed to agree with his wife who had taken the infant to her heart instantly, raising him as his own. Thor had been overjoyed over his baby brother back then, falling asleep more than once whilst sitting next to the crib, guarding the little boy.

She was questioning herself when everything had started to deteriorate, and realized that punishments were getting crueler and crueler around the time Loki had made it clear that his magic was a part of him that he would not dismiss. He was practicing, supported by his mother, his abilities growing each and every day.

The information she had gathered only a day before, when she had examined an unconscious Loki whose head was pillowed in the lap of one of Asgard's deadliest warrior's, made a lot of puzzle pieces fall in place, suddenly, many things started to make sense. Fandral never was leaving the Prince's side, though, and he was watching her very closely, so she had not dared investigating Loki's condition more thoroughly, and so she was left with yet another mystery.

She had heard of the Khunsa of Jotunheim, it had still been a topic during her education when she was training to be a healer. Later generations, though, were not trained anymore to treat individuals of all the nine realms. Odin decreed that Æsir healers had enough to do with treating the Æsir.

How she never had seen the connection was beyond her.

Æsir men could not wield magic.

Odin was half Jotun, though.

Jotnar were prone to magic, no matter what gender they showed. All of them could at least bend the ice to their will.

The Khunsa exceeded every other mage, no matter the realm.

And Loki…

Loki's abilities would soon be exceeding those of the All-Father, and all his trials to subdue the young man, to break him, had not worked out.

She needed to find out more. The young Prince had the physical appearance of an Ås, yet, his being a hermaphrodite had been disguised so excellently that nobody would have ever found out.

The glamor had broken, somehow, and still, the person who should have been a Frost Giant by the appearance of his innards was rather a mixture between an Ås and a Jotun.

Still standing in front of the door the artificial intelligence had pointed out to her she finally raised her hand to knock, only to have it caught in a large, tanned palm.

Steel blue eyes were looking at her, a face that normally was lit up by laughter and mischievous thoughts staring down at her with a sincerity that she did not connect with the man in front of her.

"You will examine him and heal what needs to be healed. And only if he wants your services. You will not catechize him. You will not upset him. You will not force information upon him – he will come if he wants to know more."

Fandral had only briefly left the infirmary in search of some food. Loki had woken a few minutes ago, asking for something to eat, and another one of these pills that made the headache go away.

The fact alone that he was asking for something to relieve the pain told the soldier that he was nowhere near recovered, so he would follow his duty as security detail – and make sure that his charge was just this – secure.

This included keeping Eír from spilling unwanted information in this situation. Loki had had enough problems throughout his life, throughout the past two years even more so. The last thing he needed in the moment was an embarrassing conversation about his genitals or whatever else the healer had wanted to discuss after sneaking in on the Prince when she was sure he was alone.

Bless J.A.R.V.I.S. for being so wise inform him about the Lady Eír hovering in front of Loki's room for quite some time, being deep in thought.

He brushed by the flustered head healer, moving into the room and taking his place right next to the bed, putting a glass of water on the bedside table, and handing over some roasted bread to the man who was still more lying than sitting.

"The Lady Calliope said you should eat something before taking any medication. Or you could just let Eír treat you and be done with it", the Swordsman said without even glancing at the healer who was still standing at the door.

Green eyes flitted into her direction as Loki took the toast out of Fandral's hand.

"The Ladies April and Calliope have been taking good care of me so far. My own magic will do the rest."

It was rather obvious that Loki didn't want Eír anywhere close to him. It had been hard enough to admit that he needed help, and that the scans of his body actually were accurate to the human doctor. The day before he had been unconscious and had had no other choice than letting the Æsir healer treat him.

But Eír… she had been Odin's loyal guard dog over Loki's health, so either she had known right away what he was, or also she had been left in the dark, and now wanted to know more. And Loki was nowhere near ready to reveal more.

The head healer opened her mouth, wanting to protest – after all, what could a mere human do that she could not achieve? Pills and powders and cutting people open… for the Lord Stark's condition it had been the only possible option, but she could cure a headache with just waving her hand, while…

Fandral once more stared at her, making her swallow her words. This man was closer to the Prince and the King than anyone else. She had acquired her position because she was at the right place at the right time, willing to bow to Odin's wishes. Thor already had made it more than clear that she would be dismissed should she not be able to do the same for him. And the Lord Fandral telling the King that she did not have Prince Loki's wellbeing in her mind, but her own curiosity, as well as keeping her position, would not sit well with the new All-Father.

So she changed tactics.

"It was really dangerous what you did yesterday, your Highness. Monitoring anyone's health status like you did with the Lord Stark can leave damages. You are no trained healer, you were lucky that you passed out and did not have a stroke. If you would allow me to…"

This was where Loki interrupted her, green eyes hard and uncompromising.

"Dear J.A.R.V.I.S., is there anything pointing to a stroke or an epileptic episode in my brain? I suppose the Lady April asked for scans already yesterday when I collapsed, so please enlighten us."

Fandral suppressed a grin while the Prince kept staring at the healer. J.A.R.V.I.S. made a sound that could have been a chuckle, but he disguised it neatly in the notify strangers bell ring.

"Indeed, Dr. Kepner has asked for scans already during the first time you were unresponsive. Next to an elevated heart rate and respiration I could not find anything out of the norm. As you collapsed, I performed another scan without being prompted and informed Dr. Kepner of the outcome. I hope this was in your interest, Master Loki?"

Loki smiled as Eír's expression changed. Well, it was indeed a bit late to come now and worry about an apoplexy.

"Of course it was, my dear J.A.R.V.I.S., after all, you were trying to help me without ulterior motives. Why did the Lady April decide to call Eír?"

"Because she worried about overdosing you with the pain medication or causing some undesired reactions. I have done some tests since then, finding that your metabolism reacts mostly normally to standard pain treatment, hence the medical assistance by Dr. Hunt last night, and Dr. Torres this morning. Your blood sample is safely stored away and will be destroyed as soon as I am sure that you are out of the woods."

Normally, Loki would've been averse to anyone having any of his body fluids, tissue, or whatever else sample.

Interestingly, he trusted J.A.R.V.I.S. to do just what he said, destroy the sample once Loki was better. Most probably he would destroy it right away if Loki asked for it right now.

So the young God just kept looking at the healer.

"As you can see, I am in the best hands. Now, if this is all, you may leave. I do no need your services."

Eír left as flabbergasted as she had arrived, being none the wiser about the Prince's condition. As she headed down the hallway, the door of the elevator opened on its own, making her think about the entity in the building who was watching everything.

She thought she would be used to something like this, after all, Heimdall was doing pretty much the same.

She was not so sure of the benevolent intentions the Lord J.A.R.V.I.S. might have towards her person, though. It seemed that his loyalties were with Loki for some reason. Maybe she should approach the All-Father about this topic.

After all, it could only be in Thor's interest to have the best treatment possible for his adoptive brother, no matter what Loki or Fandral might have to say. And the Midgardians were not really equipped to deal with Asgardian issues. Pills and powders and scalpels… how medieval…

Fandral sighed as he watched the door close behind the healer.

"She will continue to bug you about this, you realize that, right?" he said without turning to the man in the hospital bed who slowly took a tiny bite out of his toast, before taking a deep breath and putting his meagre breakfast on the bedside table.

"I don't think I can eat anything, Fandral…"

While Loki scooted down on his pillows, burying his head in their softness and closing his eyes against the throbbing behind his eye sockets, the Blonde turned, throwing him a worried glance.

"If it is that bad, you should have…"

Loki interrupted him.

"I don't want her near me. I don't want her to have anything on me, and by extension, on Thor. I… I just want to sleep, and not have to think about the mess that is my life…"

The Swordsman sighed again, his hand finding the younger God's fingers, gently squeezing them.

"I will go and find the Lady Calliope."

Thor by now was used to be greeted by the Lord J.A.R.V.I.S. in one of friend Tony's suits when he re-materialized on the balcony of the Stark Tower.

Thus, he was rather surprised when this time no-one was waiting for him, asking him to enter Penthouse. After a few confused glances he marched up to the door, finding it open, so he let himself in.

A soft noise made him turn towards the living area, finding Darcy on the couch, hugging someone… the Lady Pepper?

Taking a closer look his frown just grew and his confusion elevated. The surgery had gone well, he had seen the friend Tony being awake and out of bed when he quickly checked this morning whilst sitting on Hliðskjálf, weeding out more of Odin's rotten fruits in the Court who tried blocking any progress Thor tried to initiate. By the Norns, at least now the absolute Monarchy played in the Thundergod's favor. They soon realized that he was in no mood to discuss the changes he made, and the smarter and more progressive members of the Court seemed to get the picture he was aiming for, and thus were just leaning back and enjoying the show.

None of what he knew could explain the Lady Darcy's red-rimmed eyes, or the Lady Pepper sobbing against her shoulder.

The brunette was caressing the other woman's back, only now reacting to the Thunderer's presence, sniffling as she took in his confused expression.

"Heya, Thor… How are things in Godville?"

The lady Pepper lifted her head from the other woman's shoulder, wiping away the tears underneath her eyes as she sat up more straight and tried to smoothen her appearance.

"Aggravating and too political for my liking. What has happened here?"

Darcy sighed while Pepper stared at her folded fingers in her lap, swallowing hard and definitely not ready to say anything, so the younger woman answered.

"Well. Obviously, I'm a Stark", she shrugged, making Thor frown even more. He had thought that the friend Tony was rather excited about the possibility of gaining a sibling, so this did not explain the two distressed females. Except…

"You also revealed the circumstances of Howard and Maria Stark's deaths?" he asked, only to see the Lady Pepper's eyes water again, and Darcy reaching out to comfort the other woman.

It seemed that her husband had not reacted kindly to her keeping this from him.

Darcy simply nodded. Up to now, the engineer had always been a mild tempered, slightly eccentric, sarcastic, and funny guy. Her head had still been spinning from finally having the confirmation about who was her sire when Pepper's expression had changed and she told them that there was one thing more that she needed to tell them.

Tony had looked at her, asking if it was about the thing she didn't want to tell him before the surgery.

"Yep. To be honest, I didn't think that Tony would explode like this."

Darcy herself did not know what to think. She had never know her, well, father. Sure, her mother had told her more than once that it was the old guy that had died already, but to her, he still was an abstract figure… for Tony, on the other hand…

"He's locked himself up in his workshop and is refusing to talk to anyone. J.A.R.V.I.S. is muted throughout the tower, Bruce is walking a ditch into his bedroom floor since he witnessed the shouting, and I don't know what to do."

How the fuck is this my life?

Darcy just looked at the Thundergod who looked as clueless as she felt. Everybody should be happy! Tony had survived his stint with the Other, he seemed overjoyed to have a baby sister now, and then BAM! the next FUCK YOU! note from the universe arrived.

Flexing his fingers around the crate that carried the Tesseract, Thor took a deep breath, and then also sighed.

"I suppose this needs something stronger than chocolate to be able to cope with it? Shall I raid the Lord Stark's liquor storage?"

While Darcy sniffled once more, simultaneously sending the Blonde a small, but amused smile, Pepper started sobbing again, making the younger woman embrace her once more.

Holding the bewildered Darcy's gaze, the Thunderer sighed once more.

Right. No booze for the Lady Pepper and her unborn child. Putting the crate away in one of the pocket dimensions he walked up to the couch, sitting down heavily next to the two females

Why did everything always have to be so complicated? Couldn't things, at least once, just run smoothly?

"Is my brother around? Maybe he has a suggestion how to approach this dilemma."

The only answer he received was another downcast glance, making him ask himself if maybe he should have kept a closer look on all of the people in the tower.

Folding his hands in his lap he looked at Darcy again.

"Would you please update me what happened here since I left? Somehow I feel like I entered a completely different place."

The younger woman sent him a weary smile.

"Yeah… welcome to the Twilight Zone."

Author's note: Dears, this is it, the chapter that refused to be written... I honestly hope the next one won't take so long. And I promise it will be happier.