Loki is crossing the upstairs hall when first he hears it— soft and wounded, like an animal in distress.
He has wandered up to the living quarters of the new Avengers facility, seeking reading material he had left in his temporary bedchamber. He could’ve simply conjured it into his lap from the main sitting room, he supposes, but his limbs are restless and it gives him an excuse to meander, to further memorize the building’s halls for any number of future purposes.
Though it’s been a good while since he’s come to stay at the complex, it still feels, for lack of a better word, alien. The remaining Avengers have been passing in and out since Thanos’ defeat, but it still feels strange to be eating, drinking, sleeping among those who would have considered him -- and he, them -- a sworn enemy a mere handful of years ago. He is not under the impression that any of the Avengers yet — or ever will — trust him, necessarily, but most of them no longer regard him with open hostility, and that is, by his consideration, remarkable.
He’s nearly at the door to his quarters when the noise comes again. It travels across the hall, low but piercing, slipping toward him from under one of the opposite doors. Though his ears are sensitive, he can’t quite determine what it is, and this raises the hair on the back of his neck. The compound is secure, surely, but not entirely impregnable. If something dangerous has wandered in…
He suppresses a sharp grin. The mere thought of a malignant intruding party undoubtedly promises the most thrilling afternoon he’s had in weeks. He languishes here under a sort of self-imposed house-arrest, as the Avengers clean up, play international politics at meeting he himself is perplexingly never invited to. He could use a good distraction to break the monotony.
With one fluid motion, he calls the long thin knife from his sleeve to his hand. On silent feet he crosses across the hall, pressing his ear to each door until he’s found the source of the noise. This one is slightly cracked, allowing out a thin strip of light.
Curiously, he uses one long finger to nudge the door open, just wide enough for him to slip in.
The short doorway opens up into a chamber that is structurally the mirror image of his own across the hall… but this one is papered over with bright posters, some of them curling at the edges, with every available surface cluttered with bobbles and knick-knacks.
It is only once he sees the figure perched on the windowsill, he realizes he has vastly misinterpreted the situation. There is no creature present. Just a teenage boy in a brilliant blue and crimson suit.
He’s half-curled against the glass, face turned away, shoulders trembling. A mask lies discarded on the floor, flung gracelessly away.
The name at first eludes him, likely because it is something so incredibly inane he had not given it more than a moment’s consideration upon hearing it. Boy Spider? Spider-Boy? The Spiderling. Whatever his name, he hasn’t heard Loki come in, but that’s no surprise. Loki’s had over a millennium to perfect his silent tread.
The boy lets out another soft noise, very clearly a cry, and Loki blinks several times in rapid succession. This is not what he had anticipated. There is no monster to fight here; he is merely intruding on the boy’s grief. Intending to remove himself before he can be discovered, Loki takes a half-step backward— and it’s noiseless, but the child — Peter, he suddenly remembers, is his given name — must sense it somehow. Because all of a sudden he springs from the window, feet landing with a soft thump on the carpet.
The boy is quick, he’ll give him that. Loki tenses, fingers tightening instinctively on the grip of the knife— but all Peter says is, “Aw, gosh, Mr. Loki, I didn’t hear you come in.”
Mr. Loki. While Loki searches for a means to explain himself, to explain why he has so unthinkingly stepped into what is clearly a private moment, Peter makes a halfhearted swipe at his reddened eyes. “I-I’m sorry,” he says. “Is there— Did you need something?” He straightens further, takes a shuddering breath, trying to collect himself. “Is it Mr. Stark? Does he—“
“No, no.” Loki cuts in before the boy can manage to distress himself further. With a surreptitious motion, he slides the knife back into his sleeve. Thankfully, Peter does not appear to notice. “Nothing of the sort. I merely—” He pauses, attempting to collect the proper words, unable to remember an instance he was as profoundly uncomfortable as he is now. “I thought I heard… noises.”
Peter looks stricken. “Aw, no,” he says, clapping a hand over his mouth. “I’m— I’m sorry about all that,” he says, apologizing for the second time in less than a minute, though it is Loki who has quite clearly — if unintentionally — invaded his personal living quarters. He can’t quite decide whether it’s irritating or endearing.
“Please don’t apologize,” Loki says, cursing the inexhaustible curiosity that had led him to this moment. Wishing he were anywhere else. “I should not have entered the room without asking. I merely—” he stops. “I’ll see myself out.”
He turns on his heel just as Peter calls out, “Wait!”
Loki swivels, his expression impassive.
“You don’t have to go! I-I’m fine, I promise. Just— Bad day, that’s all.”
He most certainly does not look fine, with his swollen eyes and weary shoulders, but Loki considers that perhaps this is not the proper time to mention it.
“Nevertheless,” he says, striving to be as accommodating as possible, in the hope that it will allow him a speedy exit, “I interrupted—”
“Can I ask you something?” Peter asks, before he can finish the thought.
Impertinent kit, Loki thinks. But after a moment’s pause, he gives him a nod. “You may.” Steeling himself to be asked about his elder brother Thor, or the Battle of New York, he thinks, But take care to watch your tongue, or I may see fit to cut it out.
“Does it get easier?” Peter blurts out, as though physically unable to hold in the words any longer. Loki’s brows draw sharply together in confusion, and he clarifies, with weak gesture, “You know. Not being able to save everybody.”
Loki utters a little mirthless laugh, to cover his shock. “I am hardly the person to ask on that subject, boy. Even you’ve been a—“ Hero, he thinks. “—an Avenger longer than I.”
Peter’s face falls, and, inexplicably, brings something in Loki’s chest with it. “I guess,” he says, his eyes on the scuffed tips of his costumed boots.
“However,” Loki continues, slightly discomfited, as he is now approaching a realm in which he has quite limited experience, “were I to hazard a guess, I would say…” He struggles for a moment, trying to decide whether truth is better than a gentle lie. He surprises himself with the truth. “Perhaps not. Not very much, anyhow. My brother—“ He stops. “Well.”
Peter’s face crumples further. “I can’t stop seeing her face. A-And I can’t— I can’t make it go away.” He sniffs, eyes bright with unshed tears. It makes him look even younger, if that’s possible, hardly more than a child. He can be no older than fifteen, surely, yet he is already an Avenger, carrying all the weight of that responsibility. Something like shame ripples briefly through Loki. At a comparative age he had been little more than a babe-in-arms.
“I may be able to help with that,” Loki offers, hesitantly. Without truly knowing why he does, other than that this boy is staring at him with eyes so large and so brown and so hurt that it is almost painful to look at. “Not rid you of the memory entirely, mind. But make it… less sharp. More distant.”
Peter sniffles. “You can do that?” he asks, scrubbing at his red-rimmed eyes. “That’s pretty cool.”
Loki nearly smiles. “I can do many things,” he informs him. Then, almost apologetically, “But first I must see it.”
He treads closer, starts to raise a hand to Peter’s forehead, then halts. “May I?” he asks, the request unfamiliar in his mouth. He is so accustomed to taking what he wants, but he has already invaded the boy’s private grief once tonight, and is loathe to do it again uninvited.
Peter simply bows his head, too exhausted to care. His eyes are closed, as trusting as a lamb to the slaughter. A strange emotion tangles Loki’s innards. Who is this child to trust him so?
He presses one hand to the boy’s forehead and reaches out with his magic.
Flashing lights, a screaming siren. “Hey- Hey, lady?” he’s saying, but it’s not him, it’s Peter. The stench of the city crowds his nose, and there’s a woman cradled in his lap. Pretty, close to middle-aged. Eyes closed, body limp in his arms. “Lady, please wake up, please,” he begs, and Loki can feel the boy’s heart flutter like a hummingbird’s wings.
And then the scene shifts, and, impossibly, he’s even smaller. A child’s hands tug at the fabric of an older man’s sweater as he lies prostrate on the concrete, unmoving. “Uncle Ben, get up,” he says. A tearing sensation in chest, and then strong arms are around him, pulling him up and away—
Loki yanks his hand back, as though he’s been burned. He had not meant to see so much, but the boy’s mind had been so open, so unguarded. A swell of painful memories had simply risen to the surface at the mere flicker of his magic.
He steps back, studying the boy, whose head is bent low as he swipes at his cheeks.
“Sorry,” Peter says, needlessly, with another little sniff. He forces his head up to meet Loki’s eyes. “I’m okay, really. Just— hard day, you know?”
“I’m afraid I do,” he says, soberly. Then, “My offer stands.” Peter falters, looking conflicted. “You would not forget her entirely,” he assures him, “nor the man.”
Peter turns his eyes to the floor, stares so hard Loki half-expects him to burn a hole in it. He stares so long that Loki begins to wonder if he might be able to slip out again unnoticed. Chatter floats up to the window from the perfectly manicured lawn below, and he looks over the boy’s shoulder to see what looks like Captain America and the Winter Soldier in the midst of a wrestling match, with the Falcon refereeing and the Black Widow spectating. Loki resists the urge to roll his eyes. Children, the lot of them.
Eventually Peter looks up again. When he does, he wears an expression far too old, staggeringly knowing for someone his age.
“You know, Mr. Loki,” he says, with a wan smile, slower than Loki’s ever heard him say anything, “I’m good. Thanks, but I’m good.”
Loki narrows his eyes, taking in the tousled hair, the puffy eyes. “I will not offer again, boy,” he warns, though not unkindly. “This is a one-time offer. You must be sure.”
“I’m sure,” Peter says, bobbing his head. His voice is stronger this time. Surer, as though he’s come to an important realization. “I think…” His brow furrows, and he turns his head to the window briefly, looking at the small figures on the lawn below. “I think with—with this job, you’ve gotta take the good and the bad, you know?” He says it so simply and with such heartfelt belief that Loki wants to laugh.
How could anyone possibly be so guileless, so naïve. But then, he hears his brother’s voice, saying, You’ll always be the god of mischief, but you could be more.
He suspects this fragile human teenager is more than he has ever been in centuries.
“I suppose that is a noble way of looking at it,” he says, graciously. Then, “Well, if I cannot help, I believe I—“
But then, quicker than he can blink, Peter has wrapped his skinny arms — remarkably strong for such a young fellow — around Loki’s middle. “Thanks for your help, Mr. Loki,” he says, the words muffled by Loki’s tunic. Peter’s head barely reaches his shoulder.
Loki himself is too startled to respond, his hands outstretched and frozen, unsure. Thankfully, Peter doesn’t linger, pulling back as quickly as he had accosted him, possibly sensing his discomfort.
“Simply Loki is acceptable,” he says, finally.
Peter beams at him, looking by the moment more and more like his usual self. “Awesome!” he says. “Thanks, Loki. You can call me Peter. I mean, y-you probably already do. So, you can, um, keep doing it, I guess.”
“Thank you, Peter,” Loki says, solemnly, though the corner of his mouth inexplicably wants to twitch. Another burst of laughter comes from the grounds below, and his curiosity is once again piqued. “Perhaps you will join us when you are feeling up to it.”
Peter bobs his head. “Yeah, I got— Well, I got math homework,” he says, casting a reluctant look at his overcrowded desk, “but after that, I might, maybe I’ll come down.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” Loki says, turning to leave once more. “I wish you good luck with your work,” he says, over his shoulder. An oddly light feeling has settled in his stomach.
“Hey, you know something?” Peter says, as he’s halfway out the door. Loki pauses, waiting. “You’re not half as bad as everybody says.”
Loki says nothing for a long moment, then inclines his head so Peter will know he’s heard him. As he steps into the hall, the ghost of a smile passes over his face.
It is only upon entering his own quarters that the name finally comes to him, and it’s fitting.