There are three things Tony first notices upon waking up. One: the light's midday-bright, warm and yellow. Two: he feels groggy as all hell. How his head can manage to be both heavy as a rock and floating dizzily off into space is a great mystery of the scientific world, but that's how things go sometimes. Three: his mouth is sticky, gritty, and dehydrated. His lips have fused together. His tongue is glued to his teeth with a thick paste of saliva that inexplicably tastes like hot dogs. He can barely swallow, and when he finally manages to get his throat to work, it's like trying to force down a big lump of dry bread.
He blinks, raises a hand to clumsily swipe at his bleary eyes, and turns over to halfway bury his face in his pillow. The next three things he notices are as follows. One: he's in a bed. A real, actual bed with a mattress and sheets and blankets and everything. Two: he's warm. Not just comfortable, but warm. Cozy. Three: his hand is human- colored.
That more than anything jolts his brain wide awake. He jerks himself up into a sitting position, throwing back the blankets to get a good look at his body and make sure this isn't some weird trick of his hazy mind. No, he's definitely human again. Normal beige skin, regular finger- and toenails instead of long talons, leathery blue scales replaced with the usual smattering of hair over his arms and legs and chest. Except for a bare circle of smooth skin right in the center of his sternum.
When the hell did that happen?
Actually, more to the point: when the hell did everything happen? And what the hell is everything that happened?
His memory's still too fuzzy to offer up much more than half-formed hints here and there. He was on Jotunheim. And, yeah, the arc reactor came out, but left behind a patch of rough scar tissue. That doesn't explain the perfectly smooth circle. He's missing something. So he was on Jotunheim, and now, judging by the décor, he's back on Asgard. And he's back on Asgard because... Because of something to do with Loki and Thor? Because Loki-
His stomach drops hard and fast as he looks down at the other side of the bed. It's empty, but not in a recently vacated kind of way. It's empty as if Tony's been the only one sleeping in this room.
Right, because he's back on Asgard, which can only mean that Loki is...
He lurches out of bed even though his legs feel rubbery and weak, and stumbles over to grab the door handle. It's not locked. The door swings open easily, leading into some kind of sitting room? The walls are made of that familiar synthetic stone, meaning he's in the palace, but it's not a room that Tony recognizes. He could be in any one of hundreds of suites across dozens of floors. But that's okay. That's fine. He's vaguely familiar with the layout of the palace: all the main people traffic flows through the ground floor in that big colonnade area. He just needs to find somebody he knows who can take him to Thor or Odin. If he can find Fandral...
With how much trouble he's having keeping his balance and walking in a straight line, maybe it's a good thing that somebody stands up out of one of those nest-like chairs in the corner before he even gets two steps into his journey.
"Tony Stark," says Thor. "You're awake."
Tony skips over any rude comments on stating the obvious in favor of a much more pressing question. "Where's Loki?" he croaks. Hardly any sound comes out of his raspy vocal cords, and what does come out is barely intelligible.
Crossing the room in a few big strides, Thor holds out a cup of mystery liquid in each hand. "Here," he says, offering Tony the right. "Drink this."
There are a lot of memories starting to bubble to the surface in Tony's brain – memories of Jotunheim and Thor and what happened there – and they're giving him some really good suggestions for exactly where Thor can shove those two cups. "Go fu-," he begins, but that's as far as he gets before he starts coughing uncontrollably. He can't talk, can't inhale, and can't even keep his damn self upright as he stumbles forward.
Thor catches him. Not in a way that gives Tony a good angle for punching him in the stomach. Inconsiderate. "Drink this," he repeats, maneuvering the cup towards Tony's mouth.
"I..." Tony manages to gasp.
"It will make you feel better."
Better enough to land a solid swing at Thor's dumb face? That's a good incentive, at least. He takes the cup in one shaky hand. Whatever it is that Thor's given him is warm, bitter, astringent, and unpleasant, but it slides easily down his throat and coats his insides with a layer of soothing medicine. It may be awful on his tongue, but it's good on everything else. Its warmth starts to seep down into his limbs and fortify the weakness in his muscles. "What is that?" he asks. Speech already vastly improved.
"A healing tonic. Here, now this." Thor holds out the other cup.
"What's this one?"
"Sweet herb water, to get rid of the taste of the tonic."
All in all, not an unwelcome idea. Tony downs half of it, swishes some in his mouth, and then finishes off the rest. "Thanks," he grudgingly allows. And then gets right back to the point. "Where's Loki?"
"How do you feel?"
"Shitty. Better than I did a minute ago, but still shitty. Where's Loki?"
"I have some clothing for you. Just let me..."
"Where's Loki, Thor?"
It's obvious Thor heard the question, but he's still fidgeting as he picks up a few pieces of clothes from a nearby table. "You should get dressed."
Tony glances downward. Deserving of an epic beatdown or not, Thor may have a point. Whatever this is that he's wearing doesn't equate to much more of a flimsy kilt. "Didn't I once promise I'd show up at your house and hang around in a glorified loincloth?" he asks. "But okay, sure. I'll get dressed if you tell me where Loki is. I kind of really need to know where Loki is." Needs to know where Loki is and that Loki's safe and that he can see Loki...
"I had to... guess your size..." Thor mutters as Tony pulls on the pants, which are too big but at least tie at the waist, and the tunic, which fits passably okay.
"Yeah, you did great, but Thor, lemme explain to you: I've recently spent a lot of time as a Jotun. And maybe this is residual Jotun-brain talking, but I really feel like if you don't start giving me some answers in the next few seconds I will actually start gouging your eyes out with my bare hands. I'm not even joking. That is a serious thing that will happen. So unless you want a nice fancy eyepatch to match your dad, I suggest you stop dicking me around. Where the fuck is Loki?!"
It's impossible to tell whether it's the threat or the repetitive pestering that does the job, but Thor finally snaps. "I don't know!"
"'Don't know' isn't going to save you from an eye-gouging. I need to find Loki, right now, and I need you to help me. You're the one who went down to Jotunheim to get him, you're the one who dragged us back here, and that makes you responsible. What happened?"
"Tony Stark, I do not know where he is!" growls Thor. "When the Bifrost brought us back, my father and his guards were waiting. He sent you off to the healers and witches to remedy your... state... and took Loki away himself. I was not permitted to follow – I was ordered to stay with you – and he will not tell me where Loki is being held! I think he suspects I..."
Rubbing both hands over his face, Thor sighs. "You were right. Loki should... He should go with you to Midgard. He's happy with you. More so than I've ever seen him. I've been thinking this over for the last three days and I realize now how selfish it would be to deny him that happiness simply because I want to keep my brother here with me. After speaking to him on Jotunheim..." Thor's voice trails off, and he clears his throat. "Father did honor the agreement I made with Loki. He sent the Casket to Helblindi. We now have Loki's scepter, Loki is in prison somewhere, and you will be returned to Midgard."
"I don't want to be returned," Tony cuts in. "Not yet. Not without Loki. What's going to happen to him?"
Thor doesn't answer right away, which makes Tony's stomach tighten. "I don't know," he says again. "And the fact that I do not know frightens me. Father has said next to nothing to me since Jotunheim, despite my insistence that Loki should go with you. I don't know if he's angry with me for so easily giving the Casket away or... I honestly do not know. When he sent me to collect Loki there was no mention of what would happen after. I assumed... It was foolish of me. I assumed Loki would be put on trial and I would have a chance to speak on his behalf. To argue that he has changed and is not a threat and should be released or at least serve a very short sentence. But now I've not seen Loki since the Bifrost, and that father keeps his whereabouts hidden from me makes me fear the worst."
Yeah, that makes Tony fear the worst, too. Makes every muscle in his body tense painfully and his heart pounds faster. "Worst as in what? Keep him locked up forever? Or execute him?"
This time, Thor doesn't answer at all.
"Not going to happen," Tony says. Because it can't happen; because it's a possibility not worth considering. "Definitely hasn't already happened," he adds, mainly to reassure himself.
"No," Thor agrees. "Father cannot execute Loki in secret. It would have to be public, for a proven crime."
"Like treasonously palling around with the Jotuns?"
Some of the color drains from Thor's face.
"Right," says Tony, making a move for the door. "I'm done talking about this. I need to find him. Right the fuck now. Come on."
"Tony Stark, I told you, I do not know where he is!"
"That's why I said 'find'."
"Loki is not in the dungeon, and is nowhere else in the palace I can access! Wherever he is, father refuses to tell me, because he knows my intent. He knows that if Loki's life is in danger, I'll do something stupid."
"Great," Tony says. "'Something stupid' is my favorite plan. So let's get going. I don't give up that easily, and I think I have a few questions I want to ask your dad."
They don't go to a throne room, or presence room, or official royal hall, or anything like that. Thor leads the way at a pace that's a little too brisk for Tony's current state, though he's not going to complain. Slowing down would be unbearable in other ways. He can force his body to push itself for a few minutes. Up some stairs, down others, around corners, through archways... how the hell does Thor even know where to go in this gold-tinted maze? But he does know, somehow. And eventually they find themselves standing in front of an unassuming door in an area of the palace Tony's pretty sure he's never been. It might be near that bedroom Loki took him to, once upon a time. The dragon-hoard room. But there's no way to tell for sure.
Thor knocks at the door, but doesn't wait for an answer before showing himself in. Tony follows immediately behind. Inside, just as expected, is Odin. What's not as expected is the fact that he's sitting with Frigga, at a small table, playing a card game or something with a tray of drinks and pastries nearby. That's just odd.
Only a fraction of a second of surprise sneaks through Odin's beard before he greets them with a joyless smile. "Ah. Thor. And Tony Stark." Tony gets a nod. "How nice to see you awake. I trust you've fully recovered from your ordeal on Jotunheim?"
"More or less," Tony answers in forced semi-politeness.
Thor, on the other hand, gets right down to business. "We've come to discuss Loki's fate."
"Yes, I assumed that's why you would be here," says Odin. "Would you care to have a seat, Tony Stark?"
"No," Tony says before he can stop himself. "I'd care to know where Loki is." He couldn't even keep the sting out of his voice if he wanted to. And it turns out, he doesn't really want to.
Odin and Frigga exchange a look, and then Odin nods at Thor. "Leave us for now. I need to speak with Tony Stark alone."
It's not an ideal turn of events, but maybe Tony can succeed where Thor has failed, and if Odin's going to underestimate Tony and let something slip... That'll be more likely to happen if Thor's not around. So Thor bows out without a fuss, leaving Tony to fend for himself. He squares his shoulders and strengthens his stance, folding his arms over his chest. Across the room, Odin stares evenly back at him. As does Frigga. Her presence, though, is almost an encouraging sight. No matter where Odin stands, Tony can't picture Frigga being on board with doing anything to seriously harm Loki. Prison: yes. Execution: no. Just seeing her sitting there bolsters his confidence.
"So," Odin says.
"So," Tony parrots back.
"Before we venture into any further discussions, Tony Stark, I should like to know one thing."
"The truth. All of it. From the beginning. Why you came here. Why you sought Loki. Why the two of you ran off to Jotunheim and stayed there for so long. None of your story fits together. I want the truth."
Tony rubs at his eyes, trying to pick out any kind of options from what admittedly is looking like a very, very short list. Option one would be to tell the truth. Option one and a half would be to cobble together a weak, hole-filled lie that Odin would be able to shred apart within one minute before figuring out the truth. Also by now there's zero chance Frigga hasn't filled in the gaps with what she knows, so... Might as well go the direct route and save some time. "Well. Uh. Let's see." Where to begin?
"The truth goes something like this. Way back when, Thor and I sprung Loki from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s prison because we didn't like how they were treating him. It turns out that, uh... he and I got along pretty well. Not at first – at first I wanted to kick his ass – but after spending a few days together... I don't know. Maybe it's not so much that we got along but that I understood him. At least in some ways. For whatever reason, I felt like we were kind of on the same page. So then a few days later when he and Thor got into a big fight and I didn't like the way Thor was treating him... Loki and I took off on our own. And we somehow became friends."
He takes a breath. And almost pauses. But stopping here will just be a stumbling block to derail everything. The words have to be forced out: "More than friends."
Odin's impassive face shows no reaction to that statement. He already knows. Of course he does.
"We, um... We stayed together for a couple days at this house I own, then went back to New York where I was dumped by my girlfriend and locked up by S.H.I.E.L.D. and subjected to a bunch of other stuff you don't care about. But Loki came to get me. Out of everybody I knew, turns out it was Loki who came to my rescue. I don't know why. Actually... I do know why, now that I think about some stuff he said. He's not a bad person. In fact he's a really good person in some weird ways. He's smart. He's oddly considerate even though he pretends not to be. I know it usually looks like he's acting in his own self-interest, but trust me, he's thinking about what's best overall and making the hard calls that terrify everybody else. And he's loyal as hell. I think that's a Jotun thing. I mean if you cross or betray a Jotun you're pretty much fucked, but on their good side? They'll stand by you no matter what, and do anything they can to defend you." He pauses for just a second to nod at Odin. "I think you know that. And I think you know how much Loki's like that. He's the most dedicated ally you can have... until you give him a good enough reason not to be. Then he'll hold a grudge twice as strong. You know that's why he's lashing out at you now, don't you? Because you're the one who hurt him first? Cause and effect."
"I am familiar with the Jotun sense of loyalty," Odin quietly replies. "More so than you, I'm sure, Tony Stark."
Doubt it, Tony thinks (and manages to keep to himself). "Okay. Anyway, back to the story. After that, Loki must've considered me his good buddy, because he looked after me and made sure I didn't die of dehydration. Then things... happened. Not gonna lie, it was probably because I decided to have some drinks in bed while watching porn and he came to check on me. I probably shouldn't have told you that." He glances at Frigga. "Sorry. But you asked for the truth and there it is. We stayed together for a week or so and then-"
"As lovers?" Odin interrupts.
That word sounds nothing short of terrible coming from Odin. Like a particularly vile accusation.
"Yeaaahhhhh," says Tony. He has to look anywhere but at the royal couple when he says it. At the wall. At a seam between two stone panels. Somewhere safe. "So, yeah. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Then we went back to see S.H.I.E.L.D. and Loki promised to send the Tesseract to Asgard. We built a machine to open the portal and I think you know where the rest of this goes. Alien invasion, blah blah blah, but it turns out Loki was trying to pull a fast one on this asshole named Thanos who..." He sighs. "You know what? I don't even know. I don't know the deal with this Thanos guy or the Tesseract or whatever big, crazy space plot is going on. All I know is, at one point, Loki and I were happily lying in bed talking about sappy shit like him coming back to California with me, and then suddenly I was shooting him with a Tesseract gun to stop him from destroying my planet. And let me tell you, that was a real bummer. And let me also tell you that as a citizen of the planet that was directly affected by this alien invasion, I don't believe Loki was making a serious effort. His 'attack' didn't make any sense. There were nowhere near enough Chitauri to successfully conquer Earth, and he was defeated way too easily. He was just putting on a show so it would look like his whole evil plot was foiled. He couldn't ditch Thanos any other way."
"And what do you believe should happen to Loki?" Odin asks. "Considering everything he has done?"
"Uh... I believe he should be sent back to Earth with me," says Tony. "Remember that nice contract I signed? With blood? That seemed serious. And it said Loki belongs to me. So I believe I should be allowed to claim what's mind and take him home. Simple."
Simple to say, at least. Not exactly so simple to enact. Definitely not with the way Odin keeps sitting there with such an unreadable face. And not with the way the rising pressure of anxiety keeps building up in Tony's chest. How much longer can he keep up this poorly designed, breakaway coating of bullshit? Any second now it'll all come crashing down. He needs to see Loki. He needs to see Loki. Not talk to Odin. See. Loki.
"Then if I understand," Odin says (calmly, as if Tony's hands aren't twitching with that ongoing desire to scratch out his one remaining, emotionless eye), "you believe Loki should be returned to Midgard with you. Because you have the ability to redeem him. Your love will erase his faults. Under your caring watch, he will cease to be a threat."
"Okay, cut the shit," Tony snaps. (There it is. That's it. All semblance of false decency is shredding away, leaving just the roiling core of anger and the frustration behind.) "That's not what I'm doing here. At all. This isn't an asinine romance novel plot where I vow to rescue Loki from his dark fate with the healing power contained within my pants or something equally fucking stupid. I'm not here to 'save' him. I'm not here to 'fix' him or 'redeem' him or whatever you think I'm doing. I'm not trying to change him. Yes he's kind of an asshole and I'll probably always want to strangle him for pissing me off, but you know what? I'm okay with that. I just want to be with him. Just like he is. Right now. Fuckups and all. I know who he is. I know what he is. I know the terrible things he's done, and wow! Look at that! Here I am, asking you outright to let him come home with me! Because, for the love of God, what good does it do keeping him locked up? It doesn't make any difference to you, so why not do one final, decent thing for your son and get rid of him in a way that gives him a chance to be happy? You don't want to keep him around here. Okay. But I do. I want him. Please just... let him go."
Tony can't exactly say what reaction he expected from that little outburst. Silence, probably? A dismissive eyeroll? That's almost what he gets. Odin, still showing no particular signs of life, leans over to Frigga and the two exchange inaudible words.
"And I want to see him," Tony quickly tacks on. "I want to see Loki now."
More quiet words between Odin and Frigga. It's like talking to a brick wall. Actually it's worse, since brick walls aren't in the habit of actively ignoring people. This, being left standing there in the middle of the room as silence rains down and washes away every word he just said (every word he naively thought might be able to make a difference, as if that's even possible), makes Tony feel like a child. A dumb, useless, overlooked child whose opinions are as about as appreciated as used gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. It's not a feeling that meshes with his personality very well at all. No, it sets his blood to a simmer, heating his skin from the inside out and forcing a volcanic rush of impulsive bad choices up to his brain.
He takes five purposeful steps forward and leans over that nice, cozy little table where Odin and Frigga sit. "Are you waiting for me to say more?" he asks, clearly enunciating each loaded syllable.
Slowly, Odin turns to look up at him with the kind of disdain that's probably supposed to be cutting but just deflects off Tony's diamond-hard resolve without so much as a scratch. "You have not yet told us why you ran away to Jotunheim. And then chose to stay."
"Son of a bitch, isn't it obvious?!" Tony shouts. He holds his arms out at his sides, gesturing around to the width of the room. "We wanted to get out of this hellhole! And can I just say, when people are desperately fleeing a place in favor settling down on Jotunheim?! There's something seriously, seriously fucking wrong! Because Jotunheim sucks. It hardcore sucks a phenomenal amount of horse dick. The food is awful, the weather is so bad I can't even find words to describe it, everybody wears homemade underwear as outerwear, and a rock tied to a stick is still top-of-the-line weapons technology. And yet, given a choice between going back there and staying here? I'd pick there any day of the week! No contest. Not even a hint of a contest. You know why?"
He leans over further, smacking both hands down on the table. "Because it's not the Jotuns who've treated Loki like an outsider all his life. It's not the Jotuns who tried to keep me away from him. It's not the Jotuns who considered our relationship to be some huge, terrible scandal. It's not the Jotuns who are ignorant motherfucking homophobic nutsacks. They're actually really cool people once they get past their initial instinctual desire to rip your skin off and eat you alive. We could live how we wanted there. We could've done our own thing, not bothering anybody else, but then you had to send Thor down to fuck it all up and drag us both back to exactly where we don't want to be. Back here. Back to this skidmark in the tighty-whities of the universe. So to recap: why did we run away to Jotunheim? To get away from here. Why did we stay? Because we were happy not to be here. There you go. Is that enough information? Or do you need me to explicitly spell out anything else?"
Odin looks neither offended nor even upset as he holds perfectly level eye contact with Tony. "No. You've made yourself clear."
"Good. Now can I see Loki?"
"Why do you think I should let you see Loki?"
"Gee, I don't know, maybe because I've been graciously putting up with so much of your shit while you jerk me around? And you owe it to me? And because I'm asking nicely if I can please see Loki?"
That gets him a tight, closed-lip smile. The kind of smile that usually follows somebody winning a point in an imaginary pissing contest, which, as far as he's able to tell, Odin hasn't done? But whatever. He smiles back in exactly the same way.
"Bring Loki," Odin says to the lone, silent guard standing next to the door.
Just like that. Which makes Tony wonder: was this too easy? Is he missing something? Did that stupid little smile have a secret, sinister meaning? Is Loki about to appear like he did that night when Tony first signed the contract? Dazed and disoriented, bound with chains and suppressive magic? Or worse?
It doesn't take long for the guard to return with Loki (Five minutes? Ten?), but it feels like way longer as long as Tony paces back to the middle of the room and waits. Once again, he can't bring himself to look at Odin. That enigmatic, almost triumphant smile gets too far under his skin. Instead, he stares at the door, and when it finally opens...
Loki, by some miracle, looks better than Tony had been fearing. So much better. No drab prison clothes this time: he's dressed well, in a draping, pale gold robe, a bronze and black leather vest that hangs to his knees, and all the necessary decorations with overlapping pieces and crisscrossing bits and metal ornamentation that fashionable Asgardian outfits can't exist without. His hair has been washed and combed to a sleek shine. All in all he looks... not like a prisoner. The oddly delicate golden shackles chaining his wrists are the only thing marring the image of Loki the Prince and dragging him back down to the level of Loki the Traitor.
Good thing Tony doesn't care about which variety of Loki he gets. Any of them will do in his books. Also a good thing he doesn't have two shits to rub together about what Odin thinks of him: as soon as Loki's through the door, Tony's moving forward, pulling Loki into an embrace he's pretty sure nobody in the world could force him to break right now. Loki only hesitates for a second, spine stiffening at the sudden contact, but then it's like he too has run out of fucks to give about propriety. He leans into Tony's arms and drops his head down. Holds on as best he can with his chained hands at Tony's waist.
"Jesus Christ, I almost thought..." Tony whispers. "I was worried you might be dead."
When Loki shakes his head, his hair brushes Tony's cheek. "No. I'm fine."
"Really fine, or just saying that so I don't worry?"
"I've been confined to a room since we returned from Jotunheim. Nothing worse."
"To prevent me from shifting away to escape, but they're not as magic-repressive as those I wore before. I'm fine. I promise."
So this fancy getup isn't just a ruse to convince Tony that Loki hasn't been mistreated. Good. But Tony still holds onto him a little tighter.
"So. Loki." The rough texture of Odin's voice grates over Tony's eardrums, interrupting the moment and kicking things back into the ugly realm of reality. "Tony Stark has shared what he wishes to say. I believe we should now hear from you. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Reluctantly, Tony turns back to face the royals, careful not to lose the remainder of the hold he still has around Loki's back. He still needs that. And with a bracing breath, Loki also turns and looks up.
All Loki says is, "I would humbly request that you listen to everything Tony has said."
Odin frowns at that. "Oh?"
"I assume he's asked you to release us to return to Midgard." Loki's gaze flits over to Tony's face, looking for confirmation; Tony nods. "All I have to say is... I wish you would listen to him."
"That's all?" Odin asks. "No venomous words to threaten me?"
The primordial sparks of a dozen sharp emotions flicker in Loki's eyes. And then, just as quickly, fade into darkness as cool and deep as the far-off Jotunheim sky. "No."
"How unlike you," says Odin.
"But if you wish me to speak on," Loki continues without rising to Odin's bait, "I will ask you to stop toying with us. I know you've already made up your mind. Nothing either of us can do will change your decision. So please just tell us what our fate will be and stop nurturing false hope."
He leans into Tony as he speaks. Tony leans right back, one hand rubbing a path of encouragement up and down the length of his spine while the other gently squeezes his bicep.
Across the room, Odin leans forward in his chair with a dissonant creak of leather. "Midgard," he mutters, like he's contemplating the meaning of a difficult word. "You wish me to send you to Midgard."
"Yes," Loki quietly replies.
"And you think this is what you deserve?"
Even quieter than before, Loki answers, "It's what I want. And I do... I do think I deserve for you to listen to what I want. For once."
"I am not asking you what you want. I am asking, Loki, if, after everything you have done, you believe that being released to Midgard is what you deserve."
"Yeah, it is," Tony whispers as a prompt when Loki doesn't answer.
"I did not ask you, Tony Stark," Odin cuts in. "You've had ample time to speak your mind already. Now I wish to hear from Loki."
Loki, to his credit, looks like he's thinking. Considering. Trying to sift through all the innumerable possibilities that touch his mind and draw out a real answer instead of the biting sarcasm Tony knows he'd prefer. (Which, any reasonable person would agree, would serve Odin perfectly well.) But no, Loki closes his eyes, and presses his lips together, and maybe that helps him think because after only another short pause he lifts his head to look Odin directly in the eye, and he speaks.
"I don't want to die."
Odin, not expecting that, takes a moment to gather a response. "Oh? And how does that answer the question of whether or not you deserve to be released to Midgard?"
"I don't want to die," Loki repeats. Softer. And he gives his head a little shake. "Not now. But a year ago? Two years ago? I don't think I would have cared. If I were standing here a year ago, asked to defend myself, I don't think I would have done anything but laugh in your face and tell you to do your worst. A year ago, what did I have to live for? And now I..." His voice trails off into a breath. "I didn't care before. About anything. About... what I did or what the consequences might have been. What would prison matter when I knew I had no reason to be free? What would death matter if I had nothing to leave behind? Threat of punishment is effective only to one who has something to lose. People to cares about. People who..." His eyes dart briefly in Tony's direction. "People who care in return."
Again, Tony squeezes Loki's arm. One little thing he can do in this room. That, and shift a tiny bit closer, as close as he can be, with his shoulder pressing against Loki's. I care, the position of his body tries to silently say. Oh, Loki, I care more than I ever though I could...
"You know we care about you," Frigga says, finally, finally breaking the silence she's held so far... just to offer up some weak platitude.
Loki's jaw tightens into a sharp-cornered angle as his breathing gains speed. Eyes shine a little too bright. How many different responses could he give to that? A lot. More than Tony could easily count, even if they are all sitting right there on display, clear in the line of his brow or the hardness of his lips. A whole grand array of weaponized words, built up over so many years, that he could use to slash through trite claims of 'you know we care about you'.
He doesn't use any of them.
"No, I don't deserve to be released to Midgard," Loki says instead. "Both of you are very aware of that." And if he sounds a little less controlled than he did before, who can blame him, really? "So there is your question answered. The one thing I want in this entire worthless universe and it's painfully clear I don't deserve it. After everything I've done? Centuries of designing chaos and inciting discord? I don't even deserve to be standing here. I don't know why you didn't kill me long ago. Put me out of my very obvious misery. Instead, I suppose you thought it would be kinder to lock me away. Do you know how many days I've spent locked up? In my room? In the witches' temple? In a cell? Even chained to a stake in the ground in a tent? Do you?"
He looks straight at Frigga when he asks that, but she's returned to her favored silence.
"I do," he says. "I know. I counted. Four thousand, three hundred thirty-eight. Give or take a few to account for partial days here and there, but... I've spent four thousand, three hundred thirty-eight days of my life locked away. In little increments, here and there, when you decided it was more convenient to hide me out of sight where I didn't have to burden anyone's thoughts with my unwanted presence. And that's what I deserve now, I suppose. To be locked away again. For another four thousand, three hundred thirty-eight days. The ever-increasing price for the cumulative sum of my crimes, even when others have done worse and paid less."
"Have others gone behind my back to treat with Jotunheim?" Odin asks. "To hand over dangerous and powerful artifacts?"
"I will not apologize for that," Loki snaps immediately back. "The Casket belongs to the Jotnar, and this pointless antagonism between Asgard and Jotunheim needs to end. I did what was right: what you should have done centuries ago."
"What was right," Odin echoes, and he glances over at Frigga to share another one of those looks. "Do you know how angry I was with Thor when he returned to inform me of the terms of your surrender? Terms to which I was unwillingly bound?"
Loki almost smirks. "If I am to judge by how many days Thor has been held in chains since then, my answer would have to be 'not angry at all'."
Odin shakes his head. "Oh, Loki, if only you had half as much honor as you have wit. But I think Thor can tell you how displeased I was. I sent him to Jotunheim as an emissary of Asgard, to carry out my will. I had one instruction for him: to bring you back. Not to bargain, but to collect you and return to Asgard. He disobeyed my direct orders. Because of you. You somehow convinced him to agree to a ransom. It was not what I asked, and not how I would have acted, were I there in his place. However. What's done is done. And for all that I disagree with the choices the two of you made, I see now the wisdom in your actions. Now that I have had time to consider this turn of events and consult with your mother, I agree with the result."
After a beat of silence (either stunned or confused, it's hard to tell which), Tony's the first one to speak. The only one to speak, because all Loki seems able to do is stand there with his mouth hanging open.
Such an elegant, concise statement. Really gets the point across and succinctly sums up exactly what Tony is thinking. And when Loki stays silent, he keeps going.
"No, really, what the hell?! What the what?! The wisdom in... What?!"
"I am saying," Odin replies, with that stupid, amused little smirk once again decorating his mouth, "that despite Loki's actions being contrary to what I would have done myself, I believe he acted well in taking a step towards better relations between Asgard and Jotunheim. I am saying that my queen and I spent the last three days in deliberation , debating all the factors and recent events and working towards a fair decision on what path we believe Loki's fate should follow."
In a gesture that's nothing but pure, self-indulgent enjoyment of the moment, Odin pauses to take a sip of his wine while Tony and Loki stand there in mute confusion.
"I am saying," he eventually continues, slowly savoring each haughty word, "that despite your very persuasive arguments to the contrary, Loki, your mother and I believe that you do indeed deserve to be released to Midgard."
At this point in his life, Tony Stark is fairly certain he'll never gain a knack for accurately guessing how his ill-advised adventures will end. Exhibit A: Afghanistan. All he wanted was to escape from captivity, and he accidentally invented a superhero alter-ego. Exhibit B: New York. All signs pointed to him and Loki living happily ever after (or at least happily for three or so months until one of them did something really shitty), but that devolved into an alien invasion and one party shooting the other with a ray gun. Exhibit C: Asgard. What he'd assumed would end with some kind of epic fight for his and Loki's life à la Flash Gordon has dwindled down into... quietly going home without a fuss.
"Soooo," he says to Thor, because standing there silently next to each other in the Bifrost dome is getting kind of awkward. Around the perimeter, Loki and Frigga have been quietly walking together for at least five minutes to say their protracted goodbye. Odin stands off to the left. Tony shifts his stance a little to better take advantage of Thor's large shape in blocking Odin from sight. "Guess, uh... guess this is it."
"Yes," Thor replies with all the jovial good grace of somebody who hasn't been paying attention to anything that's happened over the last several hours.
"Yep," says Tony. "Time to head home. Time to get out while the going's good, as we say back on Earth."
"We say that on Asgard, too."
"Huh. Really?" The things you learn.
"Well, not in those exact words," Thor explains, "but the same general meaning. The Asgardian idiom has a more specific reference to a famous battle on Muspelheim. You wouldn't fully understand."
"Of course not," Tony mutters. "And hey, speaking of things I wouldn't fully understand, does any of this seem weird to you?"
Thor stares at him blankly. "Any of what?"
"Oh, you know, this whole situation. Like how earlier today we thought your dad was going to execute Loki for treason? But now it turns out everything's peachy? And nobody's a traitor, and we're allowed to leave, and you're mom's..." He pauses to squint at Frigga. "Is she giving Loki a cake?"
"It is tradition on Asgard for mothers to give their children a loaf of sweet bread when they depart out into the world to found their own households."
"That's fascinating. But this isn't weird to you? Not the bread," he immediately clarifies, because he just knows what Thor was about to say. "That's probably the least weird thing going on right now. I'm specifically referencing the part where, a couple hours ago, you and I were both legitimately convinced that your dad was going to murder your brother. But now that's no longer a concern, and nobody thinks we need to talk about it?"
"What is there to talk about?" asks Thor. "My father has made his decision. He is a wise man, Tony Stark. He sees many things lesser men overlook, and is master of knowledge others cannot even begin to comprehend. He has seen the truth and honor in Loki's actions, and all has been set right."
"Okay but," Tony has to say. "I'm saying that he could have just as easily seen the lies and treason in Loki's actions, and then we'd be in a very different place right now. Would you still think so highly of your father's wisdom then?"
"But that would not happen. The king of Asgard always finds the path of truth, and here we are."
"Yeah, sure, but..." That's as far as Tony gets before the look of marginally offended determination on Thor's face tells him he's better off stopping where he is. This conversation is going nowhere. And has no potential to nudge itself over into a more productive course. "Gotcha," he says instead. "Everything is fine and there's nothing to worry about." Definitely no need to worry that Odin won't change his mind again at some murky point in the future and demand Loki be given back. No, that could never happen, and he's being ridiculous for thinking it. "If you don't mind me asking, is this a common occurrence? Like you majorly fuck something up and assume your ass is toast, but then your dad steps in and inexplicably forgives you at the last minute? Deus ex crappy machina? And then everybody just has a laugh and accepts it and moves on? Until the next time you fuck up and think you're going to die but then don't? Is that a thing?"
The emphatic ring to Thor's voice, more than the answer itself, is all Tony needs to hear. "Amazing. Thanks."
"You're welcome," Thor replies, with that trademark charming and utterly unironic grin.
Great. Well, Tony will just continue to worry on his own. At least until the space beam is ready to send them home. And actually for a considerable amount of time after that, too, because of the annoying Asgardian habit of showing up unannounced and uninvited to ruin everything. The first thing he should probably do when he gets back to Malibu is try to invent some kind of anti-Asgardian barrier forcefield around his house to prevent surprise visitors.
Frigga gestures for Thor to come over: it's big brother's turn to say goodbye. Which is really super, because Tony sure did miss those good old days of watching Thor and Loki hold hands and hug each other. And he was definitely looking forward to the bulky barrier of Thor leaving him with nothing but a very insubstantial few cubic feet of air between him and Odin. Is it really so much to ask he and Loki be able to leave quickly and quietly without all these drawn-out farewells and what's probably going to be an unnecessary and condescending dad-talk, based on the way Odin is casually strolling over in Tony's direction?
"How long does it take?" Tony asks to grab control of the conversation before Odin can say anything. "Fire this puppy up, send us on our way... How long? I'm getting kind of antsy and really want to be home in time for whatever garbage is on TV tonight."
"Moments only," Odin replies in a pleasantly conversational tone. "Once you and Loki are fully prepared to leave, it will take no time at all to send you."
"Good. Good. That's good. So maybe you should, you know, get it started now? Get things going? Loki and Thor look like they're almost done with... uh..." Putting Loki in an affectionate headlock? Whatever. "That. We should be on our way. Immediately."
"In such a hurry to leave?"
"In case you weren't paying attention to all that stuff I said earlier about Asgard being a shithole and Loki and I wanting to leave here as quickly as possible and never return: yes."
Odin nods. "And yet when you first arrived, you spent so long lying to me and hiding your true intent. You never once thought to simply ask to go home."
"Bull. The first thing I did as soon as Loki was out of prison was-" Except wait, did he ever ask Odin to send him and Loki back to Earth? Yeah, sort of, indirectly, the night he signed that contract. He mentioned something about wanting to take Loki home. But after that... He asked Thor. He discussed it with Loki. Loki wrote off the possibility as being somewhere in the realm of pigs flying. Did they really never go back and ask Odin and Frigga outright? "Okay, wait," he says, as realization sets in like a wallop to one of those areas of the body that's particularly susceptible to soft tissue damage. "I specifically mentioned to Thor-"
"Yes, you mentioned to Thor," says Odin. "You told Thor you wished to return to Midgard, but that was not Thor's choice to make. You did not speak to me. Instead, you sought to sneak your way out while lying to my face. I do not reward lies and underhandedness, Tony Stark."
"So, what? Is this an after-school special where you tell me you would have just let us leave if we'd only asked nicely?"
Scanning his gaze around the room and through the gaps in the dome to the rim of stars beyond, Odin reacts with what's probably a shrug under all that weight of leather and armor. "Perhaps. As soon as you arrived it became Frigga's belief that Loki should go with you. I did not fully agree at first, especially with the way the two of you tried to scheme your way into what you wanted at every turn. It was not until you spoke to us today that I finally saw in you what she did. You stood up honestly and without reserve for what you believed in. Now had you done that from the outset... How differently do you think your journey would have gone?"
That really pounds into those soft, vulnerable body parts, and Tony has to take step back as if distancing himself from Odin and looking at things from a physically different angle will help make any sense of it. (Nope.) Is this supposed to be some kind of joke? Or worse: a lesson to learn? Of all the crowded, confused emotions flailing through his head, Tony has to pick one to go with and rule his actions. He goes for the easiest. The lowest of the low-hanging fruit: anger.
"Gone differently?" he asks, trying to sound pissed off but mostly coming across as needing to take a minute and a few deep breaths to compose himself. "Different as in you wouldn't have kept Loki locked in prison? Different as in you wouldn't have agreed to make him my slave? Different as in you wouldn't have kept trying to wedge yourself between us at every opportunity? Really? Would you really have done any of those things differently?"
"If I recall," Odin says in an overly patient voice like he's talking to a small child, which really grates on Tony's nerves, "I delivered Loki to you at your request, in a perfectly legal manner that would satisfy anyone who questioned my judgement. I released him from prison and gave you the authority to remove his chains at your whim. He had free, unfettered access to all of Asgard: an unprecedented luxury for anyone in his position under our laws. He stayed with you in your quarters, and I even went so far as to provide you with a more appropriate living space when you were too busy sneaking around trying to hide your actions from me to think of asking for such. I did everything I could to help you while still playing along with your ridiculous charade, all the while hoping you would come to your senses and tell the truth, which I think is more than you deserved. Were it not for the fact that you were at least halfway honest with Frigga, I would have sent you back to Midgard alone long ago. As I said," he adds with a furrowing of his brow and a gruff sound from the depths of his throat. "I do not reward lies. But nor do I punish lapses in judgement with undue severity. You made poor choices, Tony Stark. But I hope these events will help you learn better for the future."
"...Oh," says Tony. Mostly because there's not a lot of other dialogue options when his mind's still so busy screaming in a whirl of confusion over what Odin just told him. That was... help? All those times Odin randomly dropped in to check on him and Loki? Those weren't just attempts at catching them in a lie? Or maybe they still were, but like... well-intended attempts at catching them in a lie, instead of the malicious intrusions Loki insisted they were? Tony never asked what Odin wanted by stopping by. Never even thought about it: just accepted Loki's interpretation. And yes, at the time it made perfect sense, but in hindsight maybe blindly running along with pessimistic conspiracy theories backed up with zero empirical evidence wasn't the soundest of choices. Maybe he should have made a small effort to find his own answers instead of putting all his trust in Loki.
"I am obviously way too good of a boyfriend," he whispers to himself.
"Have you now learned your lesson?" Odin asks him.
"I... uh... guess?" he says, looking up. He definitely learned something (probably), though what exactly that might be is way too hard to tell right now. Be honest? As for what he wants in life? Don't always listen to Loki, because Loki is fallible and not omniscient and can still make mistakes? No, none of those things sounds like a snippet of wisdom Tony will ever follow. Leave Asgard immediately because Asgard is a silly place full of people he doesn't want to talk to? That's more like it. "Are you trying to give me fatherly advice?"
Odin nods. "Yes. You are still young and can use much guidance."
"Very young," Odin agrees with a pat to Tony's arm.
"Okay yeah I need to go back to my own planet now," Tony says. From across the room he locks eyes with Loki, who is in the midst of being crushed in yet another one of Thor's massive bear hugs. Everything about both of their situations screams 'done'. "Immediately."
In a small way, Tony had been dreading the whole travel-by-Bifrost ordeal. Which is to say, he dreaded it a lot less than the possibility of being stuck on Asgard forever, a lot like the way people dread vaccinations that will ultimately prevent some terrible disease but suck in the short term. You'd rather get a shot and a sore arm than have tetanus, but the shot still hurts. He'd rather go back to Earth than stay on Asgard, but he had this preconceived notion stuck in his head that the Bifrost was going to be like a bigger, badder version of Loki's teleportation. Complete with all the unpleasant innard-shifting and that weird feeling like his skin doesn't quite fit right.
But after all the hugs and manly arm clasps and a kiss on the forehead from Frigga and a coerced promise that they'd try to visit one year for some unpronounceable Asgardian word that was probably a holiday, Odin started up the portal and Loki took Tony's hand before the two of them stepped into the beam. A few seconds of light-speed flashing colors later and they touched down on Earth with barely more than a stumbling step.
It wasn't actually that bad. Tony's innards feel fine. His skin feels the right size. His blood is okay (i.e., it's there and doing its job in a way he doesn't particularly notice) and everything feels normal. He lifts up his hands, at first just to look and make sure they're working, and then to cling like a maniac around Loki's shoulders and pull him into the kind of embrace usually reserved for reunions after a long time apart. Closing his eyes, his presses his forehead against Loki's collarbone. They're home. They're home. They're home. "Holy shit," he murmurs.
"We made it," says Loki, holding onto him in return with an equal intensity. At least as much as he can without squishing Frigga's bread. "Finally. Midgard."
"You sure? They didn't send us to Punishmentheim or Jailgard or somewhere horrible? It's really Earth?"
"Yes. Earth." Those sound like two of the greatest words Tony has ever heard in his life. Unfortunately, they're followed by some of the worst. "We're back in New Mexico."
Tony's head snaps up. "What?!" He steps back from Loki just far enough to spin in a full circle, scanning all 360 degrees of the horizon, though his stomach sinks before he even hits degree forty-five. He looks at the far-off hills, looks at the dirt, looks at a wizened old clump of scrubby weeds, looks at Loki... "Motherfucker!"
"This isn't where we're meant to be?" Loki asks, eyebrows raised.
"Of course not!" Tony snarls. "We were supposed to go home! As in my home! My house-home!"
"Did you give anyone that instruction?"
Tony opens his mouth and then shuts it again without saying a thing. Lifts up his fist to make some angry gesture, but drops it right back down. So there may have been a small oversight that could be construed as being partially, in some minor way, indirectly his fault. "Well," he begins. "I was..." Distracted? Discombobulated? In a terrible hurry? Making incorrect assumptions that Asgardians would understand basic geography and didn't need to be told to send him to his house instead of to a dirt-patch a thousand miles away in a different state?
Loki's lips get ever so slightly thinner. "Do you want me to call Heimdall and-"
"Unless the next words out of your mouth are going to be 'tell Odin to go fuck himself', no. It turns out I'd actually rather walk across the desert than go back to Asgard any time soon. You?"
That should be classified as a rhetorical question. Loki takes only the briefest look around before answering with a sharp nod. "Desert."
At least they're on the same page. And at least they're also in this together. Walking across a desert with Loki (not magic-drunk this time) is better than walking across a desert alone. Right? Of course right. They did Jotunheim. They can handle this. "How far do you think we have to go before we're out of range of magical interference and you can teleport us to California?" Tony asks.
"I don't know. With the Bifrost imprint so fresh, it will be a considerable distance. Several hours' walk at least."
Still a better option than going back to Asgard. "Then I guess we better get going." He holds out his hand. "Care to walk off into the sunset with me?"
"The sun isn't setting yet."
"If this walk takes as long as you think it will, there will definitely be a sunset to walk into by the time we're done."
"But why do we need the sunset?"
"No, we don't need the..." Rubbing his hands over the dirt and grit already beginning to stick to his face, Tony sighs. "Never mind. It's just a dumb thing. Classic romantic ending where the couple rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after. I have so much to teach you about pop culture clichés."
He slips his arm around Loki's waist as they walk. All those layers of fabric and leather and metal and who knows what else make for a tough hold to keep, but he does his best. And despite the situation, despite all the shit, despite New Mexico and Asgard and everything that's happened... he can't help but feel a little bubble of happiness start to expand in his chest. It's lightness. It's freedom. They're home. Well, kind of. They're more home than they were five minutes ago. Being on the right planet is good enough for Tony to let in all those feelings of optimism for the future that had been held back for so long. He's here, and Loki's here with him. It all worked out okay. More or less.
He tightens his hold as much as he can through his dumb Asgardian sleeve and Loki's dumb Asgardian vest, and leans in until the side of his head gently rests against Loki's shoulder. Loki must have had the same idea at the same time, because his lips are right there to press a kiss with gentle breath into Tony's hair right above his ear.
"I love you."
All of one second later, Loki's fist collides with the soft spot on Tony's back under his rib cage in a very affectionate kidney punch. "Ow! Fuck!" Tony yells. "Fine, okay, I love you too, you evil asshole!"
"Good," Loki says through a deceptively sweet smile. "Because you're stuck with me now."
"That I am," Tony agrees. He wraps his arm around Loki's waist again, this time managing to find a slightly better position and work in a loving kidney punch of his own. "I am stuck with you now."