The fear had come back. It went unacknowledged until he saw the frost giant and Thor, but now it was at the forefront of his mind. Trying to satisfy Tony's futile requests for 'goodness' had kept it at bay, but now it was night, and those fears he had thought were banished forever by the cube danced in his head. With a snarl, he pulled out of the nest of blankets and pillows that served as his bed and stalked over to the book shelf. Most were useless and childish, but one title caught his eye. "The Ugly Duckling," he read out loud before clamping his jaws shut and stealing a guilty glance at Tony. Then he shook his head in annoyance. Why should be feel guilt? Had he not razed the nine realms? Had he not killed his blood father in the futile hope that it would make him feel better? He hissed angrily and dragged the book a few feet before giving up and teleporting right on top of Tony.
"Ugh," said Tony, instinctively pushing the paw digging into his stomach away. He opened his eyes. "What is it?"
Loki nudged the book towards him. He wanted to know why anyone would write about someone ugly. Someone like him.
"Oh, The Ugly Duckling." Tony yawned, but sat up and opened the book on his lap, tilting it so they both could see it. "See, all the other ducks think this duckling is ugly because he doesn't look like them." He turned a few pages. "He runs away, and is all alone until another family finds him, only they're swans and since he's really a swan, they think he's not ugly at all." Tony reached out and rubbed the top of Loki's head, scratching around the horns. It felt nice, though Loki choked down his natural purring response before it could start.
"I think you lost your family just like I did," said Tony. "It makes you real angry and sad. But you can make a new family. That's what o'hana means. You can join Steve and I and be whatever you want." Loki jerked his head away. "Or you can leave too, if that's what you want. " Tony twisted to touch the man in the picture above his bed. "Not everyone stays," he whispered. Tony hand slipped from the picture, and his head hit the pillow. His eyes blinked, once, then twice before staying shut.
Mortals require far too much sleep. Loki turned his attention back to the book. He didn't know what he was feeling. He was like the ugly duckling, only he was not really a beautiful swan, but a monster. And he didn't want to leave, but he also thought he should before Tony got hurt. It must be the monster in him that made Loki so good at hurting people. Despite Tony's insistence that they were family, Steve had made it clear he wouldn't tolerate Tony getting hurt. This "o'hana" seemed a similar trick to Odin's profession of love for his pawn of a second son.
Loki climbed off the bed, and stopped in the middle of the room staring at the mocking image of the ugly duckling becoming a swan. The book crumbled to ashes under his paws. It was too much. He teleported himself outside and began to run.
Helblindi woke Thor with a rough shake to the shoulder. "Loki has left the safe confines of his domicile. We must make haste."
All thoughts of sleep disappeared. Thor pulled on his cloak which he had been using as a blanket and strapped on his sword. "Where?"
Helblindli grinned, and Thor refused to admit that it was a bit frightening to see. "We follow the snow!" Helblindi said before running off into the dark jungle. Thor went after him as quickly as he could, jumping over tree roots and rocks that Helblindi bounded over with ease. Snow was indeed falling, though it melted when it hit the ground. They ground to halt, with Helblindi putting out a massive hand that Thor almost ran into.
Loki was curled up under a tree in a clearing ahead of them, a thin dusting of snow on his fur. Thor rushed forward, and went to grab Loki but he went right through his brother's cat form and hit the tree with a muffled clang. A few leaves spiraled down around him. He shook his head, hand reaching up to check the helmet for dents before turning to the scuffle behind him.
"Got you, little brother!" crowed Helblindi. He was holding up a fine golden net with Loki's thrashing form inside.
"I am not your brother!" hissed Loki.
Helblindi poked a finger through the net to touch Loki's fur. "Were you not Jotun, your skin would have burned. And those marks on your skin are the marks of the line of Laufey. Well done on killing him by the way."
"I will kill you too!"
Helblindi nodded. "It is in your nature now that you have absorbed the cosmic cube, and maybe before too."
"I'm a monster."
"Brother, no!" cried Thor, unable to keep silent any longer. "We were wrong. Jotun are not monsters. Helblindi is annoying, but he is very much like you or I only blue and large."
"I'm blue too!"
"It is a very pretty blue?" offered Thor. This was a much deeper conversation than he'd ever had with his brother. They usually discussed how to get extra desert at dinner, and whether they would ever be allowed out of the nursery to play with the big boys.
Loki let out a wail, then he seemed to shrink. The net fell to the ground, its golden threads turned grey. Loki was gone.
Helblindi sighed. "If he were closer to sane, I would let him take the throne. A clever, powerful king who can break out of a binding net at such a young age would be a blessing to Jotunheim."
Thor kicked him in the leg, then bit back his cry of pain. His toes hurt. "You can't have him. He is my brother, a prince of Asgard."
"A prince who will be locked away for all eternity should we catch him here."
Thor thought back to the past couple of days. They had told him Loki was insane, but he seemed merely erratic, like when father's warriors had too much mead and did silly things. And all he could think about this last conversation with him was that Loki seemed to be in a lot of pain.
"I will change Father's mind. I swear it," Thor said. It was a daunting task. "But before I can do that we must capture him. Let us return to the house of Rogers."
Helblindi patted Thor on the head which made him wince when the hand hit the bruise from his encounter with the tree a few minutes ago. "You are a good brother, little one."
They set a fast pace through the trees, but before they came in sight of the house there was the telltale sound of the bifrost. Both ran faster. They burst out of the trees to see the front porch and wall of the house lying in splinters and the pattern of the bifrost written in the sand and road in front of the house. Tony stood in the living room, staring in disbelief at the pattern.
"Who was it? Where did they take Loki?" demanded Thor.
"It was Heimdall, and he took Loki no where." Tony's form flickered and then there was Loki in his normal form, though the blue skin, horns, and markings remained. His eyes were cycling between red and purple as if they could not decide which color was correct. "I took Tony's form just to fool him for a second, but Tony did not hesitate at protecting me." Loki took a deep breath. "Why would he do that?"
Thor was happy his brother had asked a question he could answer. "You are friends, Loki. Friends protect each other just like family."
"You are not here to protect me, Thor, but to capture me," sneered Loki, his hands clenched in fists.
Thor was distracted from his brother's statement by a strange phenomena. "What manner of creature makes so many red dots on your person, brother?" A second later, Helblindi was hunched around them both.
"Freeze!" said a voice behind them. Helblindi chuckled, and Thor smiled after a moment, catching the joke; it was a silly command to give to a frost giant. He thought Helblindi would act then, but he simply remained in place.
"Why do you not attack?" hissed Thor. "They are too primitive to be equipped for frost giants."
"First, little brother, attacking with all my strength would freeze you as well and secondly, I am something of an expert on Midgardian culture due to their strange habit of broadcasting their lives to the cosmos, and I assure you that in your lifetime, they have made advances which may well stop a frost giant." Behind them, there was a lot of shouting and arguing, but it didn't seem to be directed at them.
"You are clearly talking to Thor but you call him 'little brother'," said Loki. He was looking between them with confusion.
"We have not been properly introduced, but I am your elder brother, Helblindi. Thor tells me that since you are still his brother, and I am your brother then I am his brother as well."
"Father has Jotun blood too so we're all related in some way," said Thor cheerfully. Loki looked stunned, his red eyes wide. "I have vowed to make Father change his mind about your sentence. I do not know what happened after your birthday, but Midgard has been good for you, and I do not want to lose you."
"I'm authorized to inform you," said a voice to their left with an air of a man quoting someone else, "that this is a touching heart to heart, but you'd be advised pay attention to your surroundings a little more." The man was in severe black and white clothing, and appeared to have no weapons.
"Who are you?" asked Thor.
"I'm Agent Coulson. If you'll follow me, perhaps we can sort out why two Jotun and an Aesir are on our planet."
"I would have your word that you won't attack us," demanded Helblindi.
Coulson nodded. "If you will do the same."
"I swear on my ice we will not attack you unless attacked ourselves," said Helblindi.
"Shield will not attack you unless it is clear you threaten our agents or the welfare of this planet. This way."
Helblindi stood up again which allowed Thor and Loki a view between his legs. Standing in front of a black, armored vehicle was Tony's guardian, Steve, and a man with an eye patch who Thor automatically assumed was in charge. At the sight of Steve, Loki began to drag his feet, so Thor grabbed his hand and pulled him along behind them. They all halted in front of the two men.
Steve starred hard at Loki. "You're Loki, right?"
"Where's Tony?" Something broke in the man's voice as he asked the question, and Loki's hand nearly jerked out of Thor's grasp.
"Peace, friend Rogers," said Thor. "He has been taken by Heimdall, but they will have no reason to harm him once the deception is discovered."
"Taken where?" demanded Steve.
Thor opened his mouth to respond, but before he could both the Son of Coul and the one-eyed man spoke. "That's classified."
"You're not a social worker, Fury," said Steve to the one-eyed man.
"Actually, I am. I retired from… my other line of work. Fortunately, it was only filed as a long vacation," said the man, casting a side long glance at the Son of Coul. "As I was trying to tell you before, when Tony called, my "vacationing" status meant I was able to call up the assets required to deal with this problem." Steve seemed to calm some.
"It is very likely that Tony will be returned any moment," added the Son of Coul helpfully.
"And will I be allowed to keep him?" asked Steve, turning to Fury.
"Seeing as you just joined a special Shield task force which makes you employed, and it's hardly your fault that aliens attacked your house, yes," said Fury.
"I wasn't here," said Steve. "I should have made Bucky stay with Tony."
"It wouldn't have made a difference against Heimdall," said Helblindi.
"O'hana," said Loki in a quiet voice. He pushed past Helblindi to stand in front of Steve, his head bowed. "Tony was protecting me because of o'hana. I'm sorry. He… he shouldn't have. You didn't want him hurt."
Steve was looking at Loki as if he'd never seen him before, which Thor reflected was probably true until a few moments ago. Steve crouched down so his head was level with Loki's. "Loki. Look at me. I know we've only had you for a few days, but you are part of our family. And if I'd known you were Tony's age, I would never have given you such a responsibility."
"I guess by Midgardian standards they are about the same age," mused Helblindi.
Steve turned his attention to Helblindi. "And why do you want Loki?"
"He's my brother," responded Thor.
"He is mine as well," said Helblindi. "But the reason we were sent here was to retrieve Loki. He has committed many crimes and ran away before the sentence could be carried out." Steve looked horrified. "He is to be imprisoned, not executed."
"A five year old?" wondered Steve. "You send five year olds to jail? What is wrong with you people?"
Helblindi tilted his head in thought. "That is a very good question. There are no laws protecting children on Jotunheim or Asgard, but the majority of the other realms do have them. The crimes he was charged with in those realms should not count, and Jotunheim rejoiced when he killed Laufey."
"So only the crimes committed on Asgard are valid," said Thor. He was vibrating with excitement. "This is great, Loki."
"Do you truly think Fa- Odin will forgive me?" asked Loki, a look of scorn on his face. He opened his mouth to say more, but then the sky above their heads rumbled, and the forest next to the house disappeared in a flash. When the light faded, Father, Heimdall, and Tony stood on the perfect circle that now cut into the remaining jungle.
"Tony!" Steve ran and had Tony in his arms and away from the bifrost imprint in seconds. Beside Thor, Loki let out an audible sigh of relief. On their other side, Helblindi held out one huge slab of a hand to Loki. "Come, little brothers." Thor held his breath until Loki took Helblindi's hand. He took Loki's free hand in his own and they all approached Odin together.
Father and Heimdall looked intimidating, and Thor was glad he wasn't alone facing that look. That is until Odin looked behind the three of them. "Director Fury," said Odin. "I greet you, and offer my apologies for Asgard's interference in Migard."
Fury grunted. "We'll discuss it after you deal with your children." Odin nodded.
"Loki," said Odin.
"Father, wait," interjected Thor. He was too nervous to wait. "Helblindi has realized the sentencing was unjust."
Odin gestured for him to be silent. "Heimdall has relayed Helblindi's idea. It is true I could push to absolve Loki of guilt in most of the realms, but he still holds the power of the cosmic cube." He stared at Loki. "Your eyes are red now, but can you assure me they will stay that way?"
Loki shook his head 'no'.
"Without his powers capped the madness could take him again."
"If that's the only problem, the Casket of Ancient Winters should be able to do it. It was made with a shard from the cosmic cube after all," said Helblindi. Everyone stared at him. "What?"
"They thought you were stupid 'cause your big," pointed out Tony. He and Steve had come up behind Helblindi, Thor, and Loki.
"Stupid sons of Laufey do not survive," said Helblindi with a shrug.
Father looked… relieved. Thor squeezed his brother's hand in reassurance. Odin turned to Heimdall. "Fetch the casket at once. The Queen will aid you."
"Your mom was there when we got off the bifrost. Groovy ride, by the way. I think your Dad's been sleeping on the couch," whispered Tony. "Also, nice to see you in people form, Loki."
"What does 'sleeping on the couch' mean?" demanded Loki before Thor could.
"It means," said Steve, "that your mother probably isn't happy with your father for how he's been handling this situation."
"Oh," said Thor. "Why did you not speak it plainly?"
"Says the guy who sounds like he's quoting Shakespeare," said Tony.
"Enough," said Father. Thor guiltily turned back to look at him and realized he'd heard the entire conversation.
"Loki, my son- "
"I'm not your son," interrupted Loki.
"You are," said Father. "Had I cared what you looked like or who your blood father was, I would have left you on Jotunheim. But your cries moved me, and when I held you in my arms, I felt the same love for you I felt when I held Thor for the very first time. You are my son. And your friend is indeed correct. Your mother has been very cross with me for denying you for even a moment."
Loki was crying, and Thor felt helpless.
"Geez," said Tony. He pushed out of Steve's arms, and threw his arms around one side of Loki. Thor moved next, allowing Loki to bury his crying face against his neck. It was quite cold for a second but then the sensation faded. Odin approached, his armor making a noise both Thor and Loki were intimately familiar with. He laid one hand on Loki's head. After a long moment, Loki pulled away, tilting his head up to look at Odin. Thor was startled because Loki's skin was pale, his eyes green and the horns gone. Loki noticed after a moment as well and held out his hand to stare at.
"You are a natural shapeshifter," Odin reminded him.
"I was stuck," whispered Loki. "Are you like the swans who will want me now that I look like you?"
"Huh?" was all Thor could say.
Tony, however, flicked a finger against the skin below Loki's ear. "Oww," said Loki, rubbing the spot.
"Loki, they know what you look like. Your dad doesn't care and your brother doesn't care. You probably look pretty weird to the big guy here too," said Tony.
Helblindi nodded. "It's a strange form, though you don't look at ugly as Thor."
"Hey!" said Thor.
"And Steve and I took you in even though you were blue and a cat so we don't care either." Tony pushed in front of Loki to stare up at Odin. "And we're his family too!"
The bifrost opened again. Heimdall approached with the Casket of Ancient Winters. Odin took it from him and after a moment of hesitation, handed it to Helblindi, who smiled widely. "You might want to stand back," he advised them, so Thor and the others reluctantly left Loki standing alone. Helblindi opened the casket, his eyes focused solely on something inside of it. After a moment, an icy blue tendril of magic curled out of the casket. It wound like a snake around Loki, turning him blue and sending him to his knees. Thor would have run to him had not Father taken a grip on his arm.
After a long moment, the magic untangled itself from around Loki, seeming much longer and brighter than a few seconds before. It slunk back into the casket which grew larger in Helblindi's now shaking hands. Loki collapsed onto his hands, and Thor raced Father to Loki's side. Loki put out a hand that made them stop before him, and raised himself on shaky legs. He held out his blue hand and it changed into his Aesir form, then cycled through red skin, a bird's wing, and a cat's paw. Thor wiped away a tear he hadn't meant to shed at the look of joy on Loki's face at the accomplishment.
Father embraced Loki, then tilted his head up to stare into his eyes for a long moment. "You will have to be careful, my son. You already had much magical potential, and now it is overflowing. But I believe the threat of the maliciousness of the cube is gone. You're exile is rescinded, and your punishment for your crimes on Asgard is to put your magical talents to use extending the bifrost. That should use up the excess magical energy for a time and will satisfy the other realms."
Father didn't let Loki go as he turned to Helblindi. "As the new king of Jotunheim, I would like to offer you a new treaty involving the return of the Casket of Ancient Winters."
"I had not planned on taking the crown, but I will providing Loki will agree to kill me when he comes of age and take it from me," said Helblindi.
Loki bit his lip. "Can I fake your death?"
Helblindi laughed. "You have my permission, clever one." He turned his attention to Odin. "Part of the treaty will be regular visits from my little brothers – both of them." He winked at Thor.
"And part of your treaty with me, Tony, son of Stark, will be that Loki visits us here on Midgard too!" Tony was very brave to stand before the Allfather so defiantly. Odin looked over at Fury and the Son of Coul who had been watching the proceedings with interest.
"It has not been long as we see such things, but perhaps some addendums can be made to the Migardian treaty," said Odin.
"You destroyed our house too," said Tony.
"Jesus," said Steve and clamped one hand over Tony's mouth.
"Your son is right. We owe you a debt, and not just for the house. I will send architects to rebuild your lodging, and there is a shield in my armory that would suit you well, I believe."
"Thank you," said Steve. They continued on to discuss details of something called 'playdates'.
Loki finally got tired of Odin's embrace and wriggled away. He and Tony headed over to the destroyed porch, and Thor followed, a little jealous that Loki had found such a good friend.
"So, you will come back, right?" asked Tony. "'Cause I already told everyone I have a cat… Hey!" Loki had poked Tony in the side. Loki smiled as Tony smoothed his shirt back into place. It had a pattern of AC lightening bolt DC on it which Thor found very appealing.
"I don't abandon my friends," said Loki. "Which is why I have this." He reached into the air and pulled out some sort of thing made of metal. It moved its tiny head around, though it had no eyes that Thor could see.
"Dummy!" Tony grabbed the metal creature. "Forget friends, we're going to be BFFs." He glanced around to make sure the adults weren't looking at them. "Let's sneak around the back so we can go up to my room. I can't let you or your brother leave Earth without introducing you to the wonders of AC/DC."
And that is how a new treaty with Midgard was negotiated to the strains of Thunderstruck.
Other things that also happened in the future:
Tony has been named a friend of Jotunheim ever since he set up a TV to withstand extreme cold while Loki charmed it to receive cable.
Thor blew out the amps at an AC/DC concert and is banned from their concerts for life.
Hawaii is now inhabited by a species of giant frog which are all bright blue. No one is sure where they came from or what they eat, but they are often seen in the company of stray cats.
Helblindi (and by association, Jotunheim) became addicted to Game of Thrones. They think Tony's last name is the height of wit. Steve put his foot down when they gave him an actual direwolf pup.
Bruce finished his Phd and went on to become a professor far away from Hawaii. He still sends Tony experiments to try. Tony is convinced that someday he and Bruce will use science to save the world.
Tony and Loki eventually made friends with Rhodey. They've sworn a pact never to reveal the day when the three of them met a red-headed girl on a beach named Pepper and spent hours building the perfect sandcastle to her exacting specifications.
Bucky has been banned from babysitting Tony and Loki ever since the Pie Incident. He maintains that this is for the best since all he really wanted to do was take Steve out for drinks anyway.
Loki and Thor snuck Tony into Asgard once and only once. Years later, they're still finding piles of glitter in unused parts of Odin's Hall.
Agent Coulson has been the designated babysitter ever since Loki and Tony independently concluded that he was a lost ruler of Vanaheim. This makes them surprisingly well behaved for him, but Fury is beginning to look at him suspiciously.
In order to improve the bifrost, Loki had to first understand how it was constructed and worked. Jotunheim will not be a backwater for long after he becomes king.
Once a year, no matter where he is, Namor awakens to find a bowl of strawberry jello next to his bed.