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Your Latest Trick

Chapter Text

 


 

“Cast yourself upon the waters. Trust in your ability to swim.” — Marty Rubin

 


 

 

In the ragged shade of the starship's rubble, uncomfortably seated behind a mask of invisibility and barely clinging to consciousness, Loki quietly spoke to himself.

He watched with earnest eyes as his copy repeated the words, more shattered, more breathless, adjusting on its own accord for every little change in the hand around its neck. Nearly all of his strength was poured into keeping the illusion tactile, believable—believable, he told himself as he paled the skin further with one finger's wave, broke a few blood vessels in the face with another. The surge of magic he didn't have sent a jolt of nausea through him and he skittered deeper into his cover, because he knew his limits, knew he was past them, and the last thing he needed was his invisibility failing—or the conjuring of himself.

He breathed in. It could have been him up there. He could have done the effects on his own body: cast a separate spell to protect him, dimmed his heartbeat, made it feel like he'd died but not quite. That was how he usually did it, but he couldn't take the risk; not this time. If Thanos saw through the trick, there wouldn't even be time for an apology. Doing it from a distance meant he could at least run if it all went to shit.

The grip tightened.

Loki jerked his hand and the illusion went limp, dropped to the floor a moment later with a dull thud. Keep it like that, keep it convincing, his mind hissed—almost cruelly. He was a hair's breadth from his emergency reserves and so close to fainting he was shivering in place, but he maintained the spell down to the tangibility, painfully aware of what might happen if he didn't.

Thanos seemed in no rush to leave, sparing a few more jeers before disappearing into the only remaining clear passage. His children, revolting as it was to call them that, followed without a word.

For a moment, there was silence. Then something crackled briefly and collapsed under the fire, and Thor snapped out of his stupor. The chains around him crumpled to the floor and he crawled, arms shaking, to the still-present mirage. His grieving howls almost made Loki forfeit the plan where he sat.

Almost.

“Leave,” Loki whispered to himself, squeezing his fist tighter, struggling to keep the clone from vanishing. “Leave. Please leave. Don't hurt yourself more than you have to.”

A bitter smell still lingered in the air. It wasn't a smoky one; it wasn't like the fire. It was something else, something he couldn't describe. Something chaotic. Death and decay, burning flesh and blood, the kind of awful things he never wanted to smell a second time but always did. The sight of Thor huddled over his body was torture. There was no pity he could offer him, no apologetic glance. No, “I had to do this.” That kind of lie wouldn't hold for any longer than the words took to leave his mouth—if he even dared to come out of hiding in the first place.

The ship lurched.

Loki grunted and steadied himself with one hand, which he then promptly brought up in front of him in a desperate attempt to keep the spell from wavering. He wasn't looking anymore, but he knew Thor was still against the illusion; he could feel the phantom touches of a too-powerful clone. The proximity put him horribly on edge. Thor would spoil the plan in no time flat if he knew. If it weren't for that paranoia, Loki would have killed the spell seconds, minutes ago. Not this time. There was too much at stake, too much—

“Abandon ship,” Loki growled, looking dimly up at him through the smoke. The words were futile; he had a quieting spell active alongside the invisibility. Still, he continued, if only in the hopes of inciting something. “Thor, you”—he coughed—“you idiot, you'll kill yourself in here. I don't need that. Don't do this to me, damn it.”

Another blast rocked the ship and Loki found himself grabbing onto a chunk of the rubble he was leaned against, fighting to stay upright. Thor was unaffected; he remained stubbornly pressed to the floor, with his face scrunched and threads of lightning dancing around his fingers. Loki tried not to look, tried very hard, but he couldn't fight the urge. He glanced over, blinked once as a stray ash landed on his eyelashes, and then thought: what the hell was he doing? Was it really so risky to let Thor know?

Yes. Yes, it was. He wouldn't understand.

Loki softened his grip on the metal and scowled. Always with the long, confusing hunches. A hunch—could he even call it that? That going with Thor wouldn't work? Yes. He couldn't think clearly; there was no reason from his mind as to why. A hunch, he decided, was enough. The rest could come later.

The largest explosion hit right then, tearing the room in half before either of them could react. Loki was hurled into the nearest wall; Thor slid off the platform's edge and disappeared into the whirling vacuum beneath.

Loki grit his teeth and propped himself up, barely conscious of what had just happened. It felt like a dream. He killed every spell he had active and sat against the wall he'd hit, bracing for the worst. The escape pods were gone and so was his magic. Norns help him, all he could do was wait.

He stared at the empty space where Thor had been, at Heimdall's corpse across the room, all but forgotten in the chaos, and then he turned around and threw a random piece of wreckage with a loud, drawn-out scream. Oh—what he wouldn't give for those bastards to still be on the ship with him! The things he'd do, the things he knew he'd do were all he could think about. They were the only reason he hadn't completely snapped.

Minutes passed clawing at the ship's scraps, desperately scrounging for magic from every inch of his body. He counted. Five, ten. At best, another spell would give him horrid nosebleeds and nausea; at worst, knock him into a few-day coma, which was… less than ideal, to put it mildly. Sudden plans were never any less finicky: it was his own fault for sticking around so long. The alcove he was nestled in was barely standing among the dying quakes, and he curled a little tighter and hoped—who was he kidding, he prayed—that it would hold out until he wasn't so exhausted. He couldn't wait forever, but he could come close. Or try, anyway.

At twenty-some minutes, there was only fire left; the floors had steadied enough to comfortably tread. Loki waited a little longer, just in case, and then stood. He wandered half-consciously through the ship, ducking between spires of flames and smoke and trying not to breathe in either. The heat was uncomfortable, but not unbearable, as the rifts had already cleared most of it. Whatever hadn't been filtered out by the initial explosions was similarly dissipating.

There was no plan.

The plan was to survive; everything else was secondary. Revenge would be good. Finding Thanos—finding his minions—would be good. Succeeding would make his day, but right now, there was nothing left but get out, get far away, and hope that whatever happened wouldn't affect him.

He thought back to Thor. Asgard—the people he grew up with, people who were now torn, bloody, burned, scattered across the ship like beasts to be hunted. Dead. Thanos had no right; after all the favours, all the everything, he should have spared them. He lied again. No surprise there.

Thor. Tortured—a fraction of torture, a very tolerable piece of hell, unlike—

Dead. Thor was probably dead.

They were all dead.

Loki had seen enough escapes in the early portions of the attack to know it likely wasn't as bad as he was making it. The Valkyrie, for example, had steered a handful of passengers into the emergency crafts, and when he wasn't busy guarding their flanks, he had done the same. There were other survivors, no doubt. Half, approximately; he imagined it would be half of what their number was before the attack. Post-Ragnarök, however, and post- various other incidents, that number was almost nothing.

Half. He tried to determine what that meant.

What was half of almost nothing?

He thought back to himself. Once upon a time, that had been him out there: glorious purpose, salvation, ends to justify the means. He would have willingly slaughtered someone else's Asgard and held no regrets for it, and for a moment, the horror of then surpassed the horror of everything else. He had no place speaking against it; he had been exactly the same.

Heimdall. Even Heimdall. His corpse was still visible if Loki craned his neck around the smoke.

Oh, gods.

That reminded him of something else: the Bifröst's last use had been rushed, it seemed, because the halls were swimming with residual energy. Harnessing it would give him enough of a boost that he could reasonably expect to hit solid ground if he warped, but other than that—well, he'd either die here or there. It wasn't like he had much to lose.

He positioned himself against a had-been wall, held out both hands, and began siphoning the magic, pouring it solely into a teleportation. Healing his wounds would be nice, but it was unnecessary, as was trying to salvage the vessel—possible, if he really wanted, and just as pointless, if not more. Get out and get far. That was the priority.

The last of the energy flickered away, and he lowered his hands to his sides and stepped forward. He breathed in, held, and breathed out. Once. Twice. Behind him, a surge of cold air offered a brief respite from the inferno, and he savoured it for the few seconds it took to fade. Inhale, exhale. He didn't know where he was going and he didn't care; anywhere worked.

As he finalized the spell, welcoming the familiar pull and weightlessness like an old friend, there was only one thing on his mind:

Safe.

He closed his eyes, and the world disappeared.

 

Chapter Text

 

For once, the universe didn't fail him.

Loki was still reciting the words in his head: safe, hold me safe, send me anywhere but here—anywhere safe

and the universe, for once, had obliged.

He appeared pressed to a wall, eyes as closed as they had been upon departure, and with what felt very much like blood trickling down his upper lip. Next to his body, the first thing he noticed was the air. Behind various scents of food and drink, it was a regular blend of oxygen and other he was breathing in, and at that, an enormous weight tumbled off his shoulders. Atmospheres, while not quite the worry they should have been, not for him, were a tremendously fickle thing to deal with; in this condition, he would have been unconscious in seconds had his landing been any less forgiving. Turned out he still had the knack, though, and fleetingly, he felt a sense of gratitude for whomever he'd directed his prayers towards—and then his second impression came, which was that they didn't exist, and if they did, they didn't deserve shit from him, gratitude included.

He took a long gulp of that fresh, familiar air, calmly readied himself, and opened his eyes.

The place itself.

His chances hadn't quite been impossible; if they were, he would have wound up floating in space when he tried what he did, and if not space, on some asteroid somewhere, or a similarly hostile environment. His chances, and he calculated them, he liked to think, near perfectly, were that a successful warp in uncharted territory would be difficult—difficult, but not impossible. His likelihood of appearing somewhere nonhazardous on a first attempt had simply been slim. The likelihood of appearing in the middle of an alien tavern, on the other hand, was completely fucking ridiculous, pardon the language, and there wasn't a single logical reason he could come up with as to why his luck should foresee one as his landing spot—yet here he was: smack in the middle of an alien tavern. He was too stunned to question it.

He smeared the blood on the back of his hand, sniffed once, and then switched to mouth-breathing for the duration of his scrutiny, hoping he'd be dry by then.

The tavern was a little on the cheap side, he admitted, and it wasn’t especially well-kept, but damned if he was about to look it in the teeth. Across the room, orange sunlight filtered through the blinds, shadowed by crowds of various spacefarers—some large, some tiny, all speaking various languages; none, he also noticed, of commonly dangerous races, which was just as much of a godsend as the setting. He didn't pay attention to the rest.

After another swipe at his nose, and far against his better judgment, he pulled up a stool and ordered a drink.

He had, in all honesty, rather nimbly dodged full exhaustion and its effects, which was a welcome surprise. Past that, though, he wasn't exactly up to par, and he mostly had himself to blame for that. His stupid split-second reconsideration and Thanos's stupid fast working speed—he'd probably have all the stones by the end of the day—and his own stupid magical bullshit that he knew fully well would take at least forty hours to completely recover from meant he'd need some ludicrously good fortune to get anywhere with his plan. And that was just the optimistic view.

Somewhere, the echoless thwack of a chair hitting flesh snapped Loki out of his thoughts.

The glass was still pristinely untouched; he hardly noticed how much more focused he was on tapping the side with a finger, trying to trigger a spark or some other display of magic. He stopped, furrowed his brows, and tapped it again. A tiny flicker of green bounced off the surface and then fizzled into nothing. He sighed.

“Trouble?” someone asked.

Loki's gaze remained on the glass. “What gave it away?” he responded a moment later, smiling wryly to himself.

“You've got the look,” the stranger continued. “You fucked up.”

At that, Loki sat up and properly examined the voice's owner: an odd, feathered biped with beady eyes and worried frown spread across his mouth—or her; the voice itself was inconclusive, as was the appearance. They?

He pulled his drink closer. “I did what was in my best interest.”

“That's fine,” the creature said, then paused. “I'm Kip.”

“Loki,” he flatly answered.

“Loki,” Kip repeated, like they were tasting the sounds. There was no recognition in the way they spoke them, thankfully. “Wanna talk?”

“No.”

“Oh. Sure thing. Enjoy your drink.”

At that, Kip turned and vanished into the crowd. Loki stared after them, conscious of a faint nagging in his mind. He did want to talk—and to a no one like Kip, to anyone in the building, really, he could talk with little risk. But what was he going to say? That he faked his death for a thousandth time? That he left his brother traumatized? Or that he was a coward? Yes, here he was—the great Loki! Hiding in bars, drinking crappy liquor until he wasn't so scared to come out and face his enemies, and until he could just swallow his pride and apologize for once in his life to Thor—sincerely. Poor guy deserved it.

Loki huffed and downed his drink.

For a very brief moment, he considered returning to Midgard. That had been their original destination, but that was before the attack, and before he'd been left drained and alone, with no one to vouch for him. Out here, though, he was dead; he was too exhausted to defend himself, and if he wasn't, well—he'd die anyway. He was outnumbered and painfully aware to what extents they'd go to make him pay. They wouldn't bother with anything more than killing him, he figured, and that was vaguely relieving, but he didn't want to die. On Midgard, he could possibly convince someone to fight alongside him were he found—and then? Imprisonment, most likely. Neither was ideal.

Thus: death or capture. His options were terrible—and he was terrified.

Gods, he hadn't felt so pathetic in years.

Behind him, the mention of Earth caught his attention, and he swivelled to get a better look, sighting a group of human, bounty hunter-looking fellows at one of the tables. They intended to pick up a friend, drop off some cash, maybe rest awhile before heading back out—and by the sound of it, they had a warp drive, which only furthered Loki's interest.

His options were the same: stay in Ass, Nowhere, like a coward, or stay within the Avengers bailiwick, like an even bigger coward—and a fool. Last they saw of him, he was trying to take over the world, and he'd neither wanted to nor planned on a second attempt; with Asgard gone, though, there was little he could do to convince them otherwise.

Death or capture. Death or capture.

How common was torture in modern-day Midgard?

Loki sighed and buried his head in his hands. Another drink was pushed in front of him and he muttered a thank you.

He kept an eye on the group, taking slow sips and testing his magic as he did. He had the overwhelming sense that he wouldn’t be able to just up and ask if he could hitch a ride, so at the very least, he’d need some form of cloaking. Invisibility was the most logical, but even that felt too heavy. Although the nosebleed had stopped, he still couldn't maintain a spell, and something like that, in a situation like that—he was just asking for trouble.

“Kip!” he yelled, spotting them nearby.

Kip looked up. “Hi,” they said, standing and strolling over. “Change your mind?”

“What? No.” Loki shook his head. “No, I need some information. Do you know those men?” He glanced in their general direction.

Kip followed his gaze. “Oh, yeah! Yeah, those guys”—they faced Loki—“they're infamous around these parts. Sadistic bastards. I wouldn’t get too close if I were you.”

Of course.

Loki nodded. “Thank you.”

Kip returned the nod and made their way back to their table, where they were chatting up some lizardfolk.

Loki frowned and took a look at his hands. A quick nap would most likely do the trick, but from the sound of it, the group was getting ready to leave any minute, and that kind of opportunity wouldn't present itself again.

He stared at them for a very, very long moment before sighing and walking over to ask if he could hitch a ride. “Hi,” he said, as innocuously as he could.

The group stared back.

“Hey,” one of them finally responded, pulling his cigarette from his mouth. “What's up?”

“I heard you were heading to Earth and wondered if I might come along,” Loki said. “I have some business there and no means of transportation at the moment.” Simple, straight to the point. What else would he tell them?

“Yeah,” the man began, “you know what? Sure. But”—he gestured with his cig—“if we get jumped, don't expect us to help you.”

“Fair enough,” Loki said, and then propped himself in the nearest empty chair and waited.

They finished their drinks and slipped through the fire exit, with Loki at their tail. He braced himself for an unwelcome environment, but when he stepped outside, the only change was a slight dip in temperature. He was in a nondescript, skyscraper-filled city somewhere, and if it weren't for the presence of two suns on the horizon, he might have even mistaken it for a known setting. The ship was just off to the side; he broke away from the scenery to examine it. It was a small, sleek thing, clearly designed for fast escapes, with a dark body and windows. The evening light cast a harsh glare along its form, highlighting what he blissfully recognized as a cloaker attached to the underside. They knew what they were doing, no doubt.

“Mind your head, kid,” the last person into the ship tartly advised. Loki bit back the urge to tell them he was in his thousands and ducked.

The inside was mostly boxes, various shapes and sizes and all labelled something different. A large majority evidently held weapons, and he considered sifting through a couple when he wasn't being watched—or if he could finally get his invisibility up. He didn't have much on him besides his daggers.

“Did you refuel?”

“Shut up, of course I did.”

Loki found a spot in the back and sat atop one of the larger boxes. He fiddled for a moment with his armour, drawing his fingers down the grooves of the leather, and then he sighed and crossed his legs at the ankle. He was silent while the captain worked on getting the ship up and silent as they lifted through the atmosphere. There wasn't much to say.

The jump was seamless; Loki only noticed they'd hit FTL when he randomly glanced out his window and saw the telltale blurs of light, motionless against a black background. He watched them right until they faded into pinpoints barely a minute later, and then switched to the Captain's side, where the Earth now took up most of the glass.

They took their time descending, passing through what Loki vaguely remembered as southern Canada. Their landing came after some five more minutes, in the pale, tattered field of a rundown ranch. Strips of land had been burned by—presumably—their past trips, and he imagined he'd see a fresh line of flames when they got out.

They checked the engines, double-checked Loki didn't steal anything (which he didn't, much to his disappointment), and then ushered him off the ship. He gave the place a wide once-over, noting first the smouldering weeds behind the thrusters before moving on to the rest of his surroundings. Blue sky, dead wilderness. There wasn't a single road in any direction—not even an unpaved one. He couldn't see any sign of civilization whatsoever.

“Nice place,” he joked, tossing a grin over his shoulder.

The door slid shut.

“No one suspects it,” one of them answered, shrugging.

“How far is the nearest city?” Loki asked.

“About two hours east,” someone else said. “Three if you feel like skipping some trees.”

Loki sagged a little at the number, but he still managed a polite, “Thank you.”

A couple of them nodded in acknowledgement. Most didn't bother. Loki sighed and started walking.

Eastward, the ashen yellow gave way to grasses and wildflowers, and although there was no defined path, a sprawling set of hills on either side kept him well on track. He quickly noticed where they'd been referring to: an empty route far off to his left, treeless, sure, but winding in all manner of ways. It wasn't worth the convenience, he decided, and he continued down the main trail.

Save for the occasional flit of an insect, he found himself utterly alone, and the quiet brought a bounding chaos in his head. He thought. It was all he could do.

Asgard; they weren't all dead, he knew, but the numbers would probably fit on his hands, and if they weren't dead, they were either dying or lost in space, eons from anything or anyone familiar. Thor was… something. He was strong—stronger than him, if Loki was being honest—but the void was unforgiving, and the chance of making it out…

Thanos. Loki wanted him to be dead; he didn't want to consider what the bastard had accomplished in just his short absence. But no: his enemies were alive and kicking, and everyone he wished was alive wasn't—as always.

The universe's cruelty was only somewhat overdue.

Loki rolled into a bustling community around noon, a little tired, a little hungry. He was minimally recharged by the time he crossed the city limits, and with a persistent fear of discovery on his back, he thus made his first course of action to fully cloak himself. The magic needed was far less than his rate of recovery, so he didn't worry about sustaining the spell; getting it up had been the hard part.

He stayed steadily masked to the eye as he walked down the streets, dodging passersby and running through his plans. Hunger was his main concern; he could go days, weeks without food, he knew, but if he wanted to keep what energy he had, he needed something. There was no currency on him that locals would accept—not a chain, anyway, which most of the businesses were—and with his invisibility still holding, simple theft was probably his best option. If honour was an issue, he ignored it.

He swung into the next grocery store he passed, nabbed a chicken salad, a fork, and that morning's newspaper, and then swung out. He didn't care enough for a proper chair, opting instead for the nearest curb. There, he flipped to the world news, started on his salad, and began to read.

Well—America hadn't exploded yet, the icecaps were still melting, and someone somewhere had some very strong opinions about a very petty topic, so things were going fine as of a few hours ago. A few hours, however, were more than enough time for the situation to shift from fine to decidedly not-fine, and with Thanos at the helm—

Loki threw the paper aside and resumed eating.

That there was no Asgard to escape to if things got bad weighed heavy on his mind; so did the uncertainty surrounding Thor's current status. Maybe they weren't on the best of terms, but he was all Loki had left. He couldn't afford to lose that last semblance of family.

He spent a long time staring at nothing in particular, wondering if there was anything he could do to ease his conscience. For a moment, he considered helping the Avengers, using his knowledge of Thanos and his army for a kind of good, but they'd shoot first, ask questions later. In-person wouldn't work, no. He had another idea—something a little more reasonable.

 

Chapter Text

 

Thousands of miles from Loki's current location, a handwritten letter suddenly materialized in a cafe, right in front of one Tony Stark. He was mid-conversation with Pepper when a sheet of regular, nondescript paper floated down and settled face-up on the table. They stared for a moment, equally confused, before Tony took it into his hands.

“What does it say?” Pepper asked.

“Hold on,” Tony said, eyes on the text. It read:

Stark,

If my memory serves me right, Earth is currently in possession of two Infinity Stones. You know what these are and what they are capable of. What you don’t know is that a very powerful and dangerous man is looking for these stones as part of a plan that threatens an exceedingly large portion of life in the universe. He won’t bother coming. More likely, he’ll have his most trusted attack. Do not underestimate them. Find your allies as soon as you read this and make preparations.

I spent a long time with these people against my will. All you need to know about me is that I’ll do everything in my power to make them pay for what they did to me. I wish you and the rest of the Avengers the best of luck.

Regards,

A friend

Beneath the closing was a string of numbers that Tony recognized as coordinates, and beside them, an arrow and “irritating but useful.” He squinted.

“Well?” Pepper said.

“Something about some guy attacking us. Soon.”

“Oh. So I guess you're—”

“Maybe.” Tony set the letter down. “No surprises,” he said, cracking a humourless smile. “So much for that.”

Pepper frowned. “You don't even know who sent this.”

“Nope. I think it's worth looking into, though. There's something—”

“Odd?”

“Well, yeah, it just showed up out of nowhere, that's pretty odd.” Tony smiled again, then sighed and shook his head. “I don't know. All that info is just—it sounds legit, honestly. I need to check this out. I can't just… ditch when stuff comes up. God,” he muttered. “We can't get one normal day, can we?”

“I guess not.”

“Okay, I'm gonna order another coffee first, I think, because something tells me I'll need it. Actually”—he paused—“can you deal with that?” He lifted the sheet and pointed to the coordinates. “I need to see where these lead.”

“You are unbelievable,” Pepper said, and flagged down a waitress.

Tony pulled out his phone and plugged in the numbers. The result he got, curiously, was a meagre two or three minutes away in the suit. There was nothing that stuck out about the place; in fact, it seemed like something he'd passed multiple times and never noticed.

He thought of the note again. The likelihood of him finding his allies was… nonexistent, if he was being honest. Irritating but useful sounded like a good enough replacement.

Pepper pushed the freshly filled mug into his hand and he quietly thanked her.

“Did you find them?” she asked.

“What?”

“The coordinates.”

“Oh. Uh, yeah, I did.” Tony folded the letter and stuck it in his pocket. “They're right nearby.”

Pepper gave him a vague, thoroughly unamused look.

“I'll make it up to you,” Tony continued. He brought the mug to his lips, saw that its contents were a mostly drinkable temperature, and then tipped it back, finishing them in one breath. “I'll make it up to you,” he said again, placing the mug in front of him. “I'm—”

“Sorry? Yeah.”

Tony made to respond, but nothing came. He sat there, defeated, and then stood, circled to Pepper's side of the table, and bent to kiss her, softly, sweetly, and all too fast. “Yeah,” he said, evening his posture. “I'm gonna… go now. Don't do anything crazy.”

“Bye, Tony.”

He turned and left.

That day's outfit had the Iron Man housed entirely in the chest, so all it took was a tap of the hand and some half-dozen seconds to form the armour. It melted seamlessly around him, much to the awe of whoever was watching—the whole street, it seemed; he paid them no mind. Once equipped, he flew off and headed straight for the building in the letter.

 

As it happened, the trip didn't even hit two minutes, with Tony landing in front of the entrance at just shy of a minute and thirty seconds. He called the armour back and stared dubiously up at the building. It looked a little weird, admittedly, but it was weird in a “shady bookstore” kind of way rather than “there's someone in here who can help in saving the world”. Still, there was no harm in verifying.

He walked up, thrust the doors open, and was surprised to find himself in the middle of a four-way conversation to locate him.

“Speak of the devil,” one of them said, raising an eyebrow.

Tony glanced at him, holding the stare somewhat longer than intended. “You look familiar,” he said. “Have I seen you somewhere?”

“Possibly.”

“Huh.” Tony gazed past him, fixing on a massive pile of rubble in the centre of the room. The ceiling had collapsed, by the looks of it, and a ways from that—his eyes went wide. “Bruce? What the hell?”

Bruce forced a lazy wave from where he was sprawled on the stairs, dusted with old blood and wearing what were definitely not his own clothes. “Hey, Tony.”

“How,” the same man went on, “did you know to come here?”

“Uhhhh…” Tony considered the letter. “Gut feeling,” he casually answered. “Who are you, again?”

“I'm Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme.”

Tony nodded slowly. Useful, if the title was any measure, and irritating; oh, this guy was going to be irritating as hell. “I'm—”

“I know who you are.”

Yep, Tony already hated him. He forced himself to keep a neutral tone as he asked, “What's going on?”

The room fell silent.

“Thanos,” Bruce answered.

“Thanos? That's his name?”

“A gut feeling,” Strange repeated in disbelief. “Really, Stark?”

“Yeah, what do you want me to say? That I was in the middle of a date and this letter just appeared out of nothing, telling me some guy wants the Infinity Stones?”

“What?”

Tony retrieved the paper and held it up with an expressionless shrug.

“How do you know what it says is true?”

“I don't,” Tony said, tucking it into its previous spot. “Figured I'd come here and find out for myself.”

“It is,” Bruce said. “Thanos—” He drew a trembling breath of air. “It's true, and he'll stop at nothing. We're all dead.”

“No, don't say that.”

“I was there. I saw him—I fought him, and that didn't work, and—he killed everyone. That was at the very end. I was stepping over corpses, Tony. I shouldn't even be alive.”

“Wait,” Strange began. “Do you feel that?”

They both stilled.

“Wind,” Tony said. “The roof's busted; of course there's wind.

Then they heard the faint echo of faraway screaming.

Bruce scrambled to his feet and started, “The Avengers—”

“There's no Avengers,” Tony cut in, making for the entrance.

Bruce stumbled after him. “What do you mean, there's no Avengers?”

“I mean—” Tony shoved the doors open, wincing as the screams loudened abruptly, and stepped outside. “I mean we broke up.” Find your allies, he thought with a laugh; there was no such thing. He could have called them, sure, and he was undoubtedly making a mistake by choosing not to, but—

“Like a band?” Bruce said, brows knitting.

Tony ignored him and continued down the street, slipping back into his armour as he walked. Bruce awkwardly followed, as well as Strange and the other.

The screams kept trailing. Sirens sounded. Past a crumbled, burning wall, Tony could see the first body. There was no underestimating whoever was responsible; he couldn't if he wanted to. He appreciated the gesture, though.

He called Pepper, told her he might be a while, and then turned his weapons to maximum strength.

 

Chapter Text

 

Loki was still thinking about how he should have snuck something off the ship when he learned that the town he'd found himself in was home to a locally-renowned blacksmith, and although he was fairly certain nothing they made would match Asgardian quality, he decided to pay them a visit anyway. Most of the weapons on him consisted of knives and daggers, which certainly wouldn't work in a non-illusion scenario; his armour was probably fine, but he could stand to do something about that, too.

Once out of sight, Loki switched out of invisibility and into a simple glamour of black pants and a matching tee, not bothering with the rest of him—face and the like—as he doubted anyone would notice; they usually didn't. From there, it was a short walk to the shop. He pushed the doors open and stepped inside.

The shop was a large, one-room building with a reception near the door and a sprawling, labyrinthine studio behind it. Various works hung on the walls, each showing a particularly impressive level of detailing that seemed to be the smith's signature. A sign at the front listed various base prices, and Loki frowned a little, suddenly remembering that he was still only in possession of non-Earth currencies. They were all valuable materials, he knew—especially here. Maybe, then, he could barter. It was worth a try.

He rang the bell and waited.

A heavy clang and a string of curses burst from somewhere in the building. Several seconds later, a rugged, sweat-soaked man appeared from behind one of the shelves and made his way to the reception, where Loki was waiting with an amused half-smile.

“What can I help you with?” the man asked, resting his arms on the counter.

“I think,” Loki said, “I'd like a sword for a change.”

“A sword, huh? Anything else?”

Loki paused, considering his current gear: thick leather, the alien, uncommonly sturdy hide of some creature reinforced twice over. It probably was fine; it had gotten him so far with no problems. Still, he added, “And some armour. Just a breastplate and greaves ought to be fine.”

“Sword and armour, alright. Not sure what you'd need them for, but okay. The price of something like that—”

A stack of gold blinked next to the cash register with a metallic rustle. “Does this work?”

The man stared, mouth agape. “You know what,” he said after a moment, “I'm not even gonna ask. Yeah, it works. Anything particular in mind? Or is strong and sharp all you care about?”

“More or less.”

“Right,” he muttered, scribbling something in a notebook. “And your measurements?”

Loki paused, scanning his memory for the required conversions and taking a few seconds to calculate the data before providing him with a sufficiently Midgardian set of numbers.

“And nothing in mind for that either?”

“Just regular armour.”

“Alright then, sword and armour. That should be done in… a few days?”

“How long if I double your payment?”

“Less.”

“Deal.” Loki formed another handful of gold atop the pile and made to leave, saying, “I'll come by later this evening.” Then he stopped. “Actually”—he looked up—“I do have one request, come to think of it." It was a whim, nothing more, nothing less; he wasn't sure why it had occurred to him or if he'd even need it. Even so, he said, "Make everything as cold-resistant as possible, could you?”

“Yeah, whatever you say, I guess.”

“Thank you…”

“Anderson,” the man filled in.

“Son of Anders?”

“Uh, just Anderson.”

Loki chuckled. “I'm kidding. I know patronyms died years ago.”

“Oh.”

They stood in silence for a moment before Anderson returned to his studio, mumbling something about not enough time. Loki sympathized with him a little, but a war was raging and the crossfire was fierce. If peace of mind meant ruining someone's day, well—they'd live. His was a different story.

Loki headed back down the street, weaving his way through passersby with a nod and occasional excuse me. He was still tired and in dire need of a breather, so when he spotted a café along his route, he gave it no further thought and entered.

Eyes fell on him the instant he closed the door. It wasn't everyone, which would have alerted him well enough that something was wrong; he caught maybe four or five looks out of the thirty people in the room, and people usually looked to see who any newcomers were, regardless of the situation. Still, Loki couldn't help but feel a prick of paranoia. Thor—

Thor, damn it—

had always been with him for any extended visits post-New York, leeching his attention and making sure no one lingered too long on his visage—long enough to think, hey, wait a second, is that who I think it is? That was why he never needed to mask anything other than his clothes to stave off possible recognition, because at the end of the day, he was no one; without the horns, without the staff and all that, he passed for an average human male most of the time. A little too tall, a little too pale, but an average human nonetheless—until people lingered, which was when they roamed into déjà vu territory, remembered, recognized, and then…

The looks faded.

Loki sighed and went to order, gratefully accepting the lack of a lineup. He ordered a plain coffee, sugar and no cream, and paid in the form of a single gold coin and a sly grin. If that didn't tip them off, nothing would.

The girl gave an expression bizarrely like she'd received payments like that before, dropped the coin into the cash register like it wasn't an alien currency, and then mirrored the grin. Loki got his drink a few seconds later and settled at an empty table.

“They're idiots,” someone was saying, and he perked. “Everyone acts like they're these big heroes, and I get it, kind of, but—shit! I was down in the States a while back and met a few and they're idiots. Like Thor—”

Ah.

“That guy's fucking clueless,” the man went on, just as Loki popped the lid and set it aside for faster cooling. “People are like, give the guy some credit, he's from another planet, but—”

“No offence,” his tablemate said, “that's pretty racist. Even for you.”

“Come on, we both know it's true.”

For a moment, Loki considered ignoring the men; all he'd do was bring attention to himself. But oh—for crying out loud. He sighed and placed his coffee beside the lid. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said, leaning over his seat, “but would you mind shutting up?”

The men—both young and somewhat scraggly—stopped and stared, mouths open. Loki matched their gaze and took a calm, restrained sip, waiting for an answer.

“Free country, kid,” the first one said; the other retreated into himself, clearly unwilling to defend him. “I say whatever the fuck I want.”

Loki inched both eyebrows up, lips still on the cup's rim. He lowered the cup and allowed a faint smile to grace him. “Oh,” he said, “is that so?”

“What do you care what I think about that guy?” the man snapped. “Who the fuck is he to you, your boyfriend?”

The words were out before Loki could halt them: “Brother, actually.”

Brother? He doesn't have a fucking—”

“He doesn't? Are you sure?” Loki watched, his smile growing, as the man's expression shifted from confusion to fear in one swift moment of realization. “So let me say this again: either you shut up, or I tear off your leg and shove it so far down your throat your feet touch, and make you shut up.”

“What.”

“I won't hesitate.”

They left at once, stumbling for the doors without looking back. Their coffees sat half-drunk on the table, and at that, all Loki could do was laugh. He laughed until he felt like crying, asking himself why he would defend Thor like that, why he would risk his cover for some arrogant nobody—yet he knew. He knew exactly, and he cursed himself and tried to return to his drink, but it was all he could think about.

Thor was dead; even gods couldn't last that long in the void. Unless he'd been found, and he hadn't, couldn't have been—

Thor was dead.

Thinking those words was like an itch that couldn't be scratched: Loki acknowledged its presence and ignored it to the best of his ability. It was there and there was nothing he could do about it, same as worrying about Thor wouldn't bring him back. Admitting it eased his mind.

He sighed and tossed the empty cup.

 

Chapter Text

Stark,

Maybe you know this already. If you don't, you'll likely find out.

There will be times when you’ll be tempted to hand Thanos the stones for someone’s sake. I let him convince me into doing so, and I was a fool. Lives can be brought back; I guarantee there are ways. But if Thanos proceeds with his plan, much more than a single life will be lost. If it’s even possible to come back from what he wants to do, it won’t be easy.

Don’t let them win.

Regards,

A friend

The letter found Tony in the Q-Ship with Peter Parker and Doctor Strange, still processing Ebony Maw's death just minutes earlier, and it was Peter who caught it when it materialized with a shimmer of green and gold. He skimmed wide-eyed through the entire text before it was ripped from his hands.

“Come on, kid, is your name Stark?”

“Sorry.” Peter frowned. “Who's the friend?”

“Don't know, don't care,” Tony answered, folding the sheet and sticking it in his pocket, next to the previous one.

Peter's frown only deepened. He sat on one of the ship's protrusions, listening to the soft rumbling of the engines, and pondered the question on his own. Whoever was penning had both given Thanos an Infinity Stone and clearly had ties to Tony Stark, and that alone should have been telling, especially to Tony. Peter had the overwhelming sense that he knew; if he did, though, he wasn't sharing. Strange might have had a guess, but he seemed to care even less about the letters—forget identifying the author. It was just him.

He didn't know much about the Infinity Stones, for starters; he knew they were powerful, he knew Thanos was looking for them, and he knew Strange had one. That was the extent of his knowledge.

Back to the letters.

He wondered if it was someone he knew, or if it was a complete stranger. Both were equally possible. If they hadn't met, he wondered whether they were friendly, what kinds of things they liked, and if they would in fact cross paths someday. Maybe, maybe not. He couldn't say anything with certainty.

The prospect of an anonymous informant was certainly a curious one, but Tony had likely had more than enough in his time. He probably hadn't even blinked.

Peter stood and absentmindedly examined the ship's controls. The curiosity was killing him, but he didn't probe.

 

Chapter Text

 

Breathe; breathe and keep breathing, Loki told himself, barely conscious of the words. The air burned—

(wait no)

Not the air; just his lungs. His lungs burned—

because he'd gotten water down the wrong pipe, he remembered. Breathe. Keep breathing. He choked again, felt his wrists catch on the restraints as he convulsed too hard, and swallowed back the roughness. It wasn't intended this way, he knew; they were supposed to get him on the outside, light an imaginary fire there, but this—

oh, in their minds, this was a bonus.

Loki heaved another breath and told himself now, this isn't real. This isn't real, this isn't real, this isn't real

but gods, it felt like it. The chains were as cold as they had always been, binding him to the ceiling, too short for him to stay in any position but standing. His legs were numb and he couldn't think of when he'd last had food or water in him—days ago, probably, one of those days when they'd force the most menial form of sustenance down his throat just to keep him alive for another session, and another, another, another—

Loki stopped counting.

The days bled together like the marks on his body: didn't matter where one started and one ended, because they'd just keep coming. It was worse now; something had been said, done, and the sessions had changed. He was too stubborn, too strong, and look where that got him.

Not real, he repeated to his subconscious, not real, but the sweat and tears slicking him felt realer than anything.

It wasn't even hot water they used; it fell well under the point of scalding. With his magic as it was, though, it hurt as much as being burned alive, and without all the complications—no complications, because that's what they were, and they were sorry, they said. And he begged, not to them, not entirely, but to someone; he begged and prayed aloud to wake in his palace room, in a soft bed away from every bruise and broken bone, every slash and stab, every drop of blood—everything forgotten, cast aside like a bad dream.

It wasn't quite a warm, familiar bedroom, but the night was close enough. A hazy sense of unreality that shrouded his days liked creeping in completely around then, when it was dark and quiet and it seemed like the whole place would disappear if he blinked. The cell became a little too fuzzy, a little too wrong, and it was then that he was more aware of himself. He'd realize how many half-healed, festering wounds he had across his body, how much his back and neck ached from forcing himself to sleep upright so frequently, and he'd linger on the pain longer than he probably should have, thinking about how he really didn't mind too much after a while. Pain was a small price to pay; it meant it was working, meant all the lies wouldn't have such a hold on him someday. He'd see his true purpose, just wait.

No.

Not this time.

Loki breathed in, a genuine, solid breath with no water blocking it, and focused on his here and now. Traffic ahead, stairs at his feet, arms around his knees. Tears on his face, just like then. Cool breeze. Glamour covering him. No pain; not anymore. His skin tingled, an afterimage of the memories, but there was no pain.

The curb was still wet.

He staggered to his feet, wiping the tears from his cheeks with a palm, and glanced feverishly left and right. The entryway had masked him well enough, but surely, someone had seen him—maybe just one person, but someone, nonetheless. He wasn't invisible; he double-checked. If anyone had looked his way while he was out, and he had no idea how long he was out, then…

Embarrassment, most likely, and hopefully, nothing more.

He had been walking, killing time between his commissions and—what?—a final battle, his energy miraculously springing back to life without sleep, something, and just like that, he was on the steps of a random store, lost in his mind's recesses. Years after the incident, years after it had failed to affect him any further, his progress had been reset—just like that.

At once, the urge to personally kill Thanos reappeared, and this time—

This time, it didn't fade.

Loki merged into the sidewalk and resumed his stroll, unfazed.

It was early in the afternoon and rumours had begun drifting through the city, most prominently of an attack on New York—another one, they stressed, much to his chagrin. Strange had allegedly been kidnapped and Stark had followed, and both were now on a large, ring-shaped ship, the description of which was all too familiar.

The most recent letter had been sent with no issues, so the intended recipient was evidently still alive, and by extension, Loki assumed, Strange. He wasn't concerned with their wellbeing so much as whether or not the Time Stone was safe; as he'd written, and truthfully so, lives could be brought back. If the need arose, he'd revive a hero or two, if only to ease his conscience. Now, though, his priorities were elsewhere.

A nap would still do wonders, but even if he found somewhere to rest, his nerves would keep him up, so all he could do was keep wandering and waiting for the blacksmith. In the meantime, maybe something else would come—information about the other Infinity Stones' status, for one; if he was lucky, about the Statesman, too. He didn't set his expectations particularly high.

He lingered near the shop but didn't shy away from exploring the neighbouring streets, weaving through alleys and intersections like they were the most interesting thing in the world. It was on one of the streets, on the sidewalk opposite him, that he saw a child—a regular, golden-haired child of about seven or eight, fighting tears and squeezing between passersby with frequent excuse mes, and he almost ignored them; lost parents, he figured, and while he'd help if needed, it was crowded enough that someone else would happily fill in. He almost ignored them. At second look, though, the demeanour stuck out too much, and so did the clothes—and suddenly, he remembered.

He glanced once at both ends of the street, dashed across, and then slowed to match their pace, saying, “What happened?”

If the appearance was a coincidence, the spark in the child's eyes upon seeing him was anything but. They stopped walking and stared up at him in wonder. “Prince Loki!”

Oh—there was no mistaking it.

The title was jarring, but he grinned nonetheless. “Prince Loki,” he repeated. “And you are?”

“Svala Syrkksdóttir,” she replied, bowing. “Where is the king?”

“Not here, I'm afraid.” He held his tongue, didn't mention his suspicions that Thor was dead as he continued, “Are you alone?”

Svala nodded. “I was with my mother, but… she was too injured.”

Loki's expression soured. He led her away from the foot traffic and knelt next to her, watching as she did the same. “How many Asgardians are left?” he asked, not knowing if he wanted to hear the answer.

“Twenty-seven,” she said.

No.

“Is that a confirmed count?”

“It's pretty close.”

No no no.

Something hitched in Loki's chest and he closed his eyes, took a shaky breath. He didn't even like them that much; after everything they'd done, after all the pain they'd caused him, he shouldn't have felt anything. He felt it, though—did he ever feel it: the same break he'd felt on the ship, that sense that the world had been pulled inside out, that fear and emptiness, and at the fore of it all, a want for vengeance. The bodies were one thing. This, a simple number and nothing more, was tame in comparison; it was nothing he didn't already know. But—

But.

Loki cleared his throat. “What kind of wound was it?”

“No, it is! She's alive. She sent me for help.”

Maybe he had a little luck left after all.

“Oh, Svala,” he said, shaking his head, “you should've led with that. What kind of wound is it?”

“I don't know. Rubble from the ship fell on her and she was fine for a while, but now she's bleeding a lot and—I don't know.”

“Where is she?”

Svala's eyes widened and she scrambled to her feet, wind-like in her movements, and darted past him. Loki chased after her, silently marvelling at her agility.

Svala brought him to an empty alley, far from anyone's sight, where a woman sat crumpled against a wall. She peered once at them, her eyes clouded, and then let her gaze drift back to the wall. Along her waist, her dress was soaked crimson, starkly contrasting with the white of the fabric. Loki grimaced.

“Alright,” he muttered, bending to meet her. He needed to save his strength, but he couldn't let her die—not when there was a child staring at him expectantly; not when there were so few lives left.

He took a deep breath and rolled the dress up, revealing an oozing gash across most of her right side.

“I don't know how much I can heal,” he said to Svala, calling energy into his fingers. “It's not exactly my specialty.”

“Please try.”

Reluctantly, he pressed his hand to the wound and began stitching the fibres together. Muscles reformed and skin grew to cover them, crawling from the edges inward under a mask of green light, and he pushed down harder, wincing as his magic flowed almost on its own. Beneath the blood, the skin was still a mottled purple. He grit his teeth and shot a small burst of energy through it, clearing the bruises over the course of a few seconds and advancing the seal at the cost of a wave of nausea; he inhaled sharply, took a moment to compose himself, and then sent another wave of magic into the wound, shutting it completely.

He killed the spell and immediately stumbled back, breathless.

“Loki!” Svala yelped. “Loki, are you alright?”

“I'm fine,” he answered, leaning his head against the wall with a groan. “I'm just tired. Is your mother well?”

Svala turned to face her, eyes wide. The woman shifted and slowly smiled, at which Svala leapt to embrace her. Loki only now noticed how similar they looked; they shared the common Æsir complexion, of course, but they also had the same bouncy curls and brown eyes, and sloped, gentle-looking brows—identical in every way.

He sat properly and forced a smile of his own.

“Thank you, Loki,” Svala said.

“Loki,” her mother repeated, pulling her dress down. “Where is your brother?”

“He's not here,” Loki said. “I've”—he breathed in—“lost contact with him. I don't doubt his wellbeing, though.”

“Of course. Thor is strong. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's just fine.”

“Right.” He cleared his throat. “Where are the other Asgardians? Did they all arrive on Midgard?”

She nodded, saying, “It was the best location we could think of—and we found a pathway leading almost directly here shortly after the attack, hence how we arrived so early. But…” She gave a thoughtful look. “I'm afraid the group was separated; we didn't all land together.”

“They're on the same continent, though?”

“I believe so.”

“That's good enough. I'll find them. But right now—” Revenge. Anything. Even just making sure someone else succeeded in Thanos's defeat. Loki sighed and said, “I have more pressing matters at hand. The ones who attacked us are still alive and planning something wicked. I can't ignore them.”

“I understand,” she said, smiling sadly. “Be careful, Loki. Return to us in one piece.”

For a moment, he wasn't sure if he heard correctly; he was so unused to receiving genuine concern for his safety. The smile, though, bitter as it was, spoke measures. They cared—both of them.

Loki staggered to his feet, trying not to let his exhaustion show too much, and forced a smile of his own. “Don't overexert yourself,” he softly said. “I'm not sure how well I healed your wound.”

With that, he headed off.

Chapter Text

 

Late afternoon. Tension was rising and it seemed not a single person hadn't heard of the events that had transpired in New York—and in fact, Loki was less than pleased to learn, they were old news; most of the rumours now revolved around the African country of Wakanda, and how it had weathered an assault from a massive alien army.

Loki had some guesses regarding the army, as well as why they'd attacked. The rumours seemed optimistic enough, but he couldn't help but wonder if they'd found what they'd been looking for. If they had, he was in trouble.

Thanos's plan was nothing unknown. He had repeated it incessantly over the years, whether bits and pieces or full paragraphs, and Loki, between his time in the cells and serving that purpose, had heard all he needed. The culling would be quick, random, and irreversible—in other words, unavoidable. Once, his chances might have been a little less random, a little more biased in his favour, but after the Statesman incident, he figured he had the same 50/50 as everyone else; if or when it came to pass, all he could do was cross his fingers and hope. In the meantime, though, there was the possibility of running into any one of them, ill-equipped and unassisted, and then—

Death or capture. Or: he could prepare, and he could fight, and maybe this time, things would turn out differently. If his luck held, it would be Thanos he ran into; if not, he had still had the Earth to deal with.

Whatever the universe chose, Thanos or the Avengers or otherwise, preparations would do him good, and in this case, that meant a weapon and a boost to his armour. The deadline he'd set had been impossibly tight, and he doubted Anderson was even close to being done; with the situation as it was, though, it wouldn't hurt to check. So, slowly, Loki made his way back to the shop, praying his unease wasn't apparent as he moved through the streets.

The longer he lingered, the more he realized how sickeningly normal the town was. Overgrown greenery filled each crack and crevice, flocks of birds lined the rooftops, and every so often, a tune would drift down from somewhere—and much of it, he even enjoyed. It was one of those places he loved to simply stop and admire, and were it not for the knowledge chewing at him, he would have. If they succeeded—

If they succeeded, this might be the last he ever saw of a place like this.

He breathed in, breathed out, and tried not to let it panic him. Death on the ship would have been one thing; death now, after a fresh taste of the world, of freedom, of what he very well knew could be a brand-new start, no—death wasn't something he could stomach. He didn't want to die, and he didn't want to be captured, and he didn't want the third option, and damned if he wouldn't at least try to carve himself a fourth. What he wouldn't give now to be there on the battlefield, to feel the heat of attack, to show Thanos just how pathetic his warriors were—to ascertain that chance at not just survival, but at life.

(no)

He'd begun anew before and

(you don't deserve it )

he could do it again.

( why did you make it off and they didn't? )

Loki took another deep breath.

The shop wasn't too far from where he'd wandered to, thankfully. He turned the corner, ensured his glamour hadn't somehow withered through a not-so-discreet glance at a car window's reflection, and then stepped inside.

“Anderson?” he called, leaning against the counter.

The reply came a few seconds later, echoing somewhere from the back of the room: “Yeah, I'm working on your stupid sword and armour!”

“How close are you to being done?”

A loud thud sounded, followed by a semi-audible curse and a sigh. “What,” Anderson said, plodding to the front with a huff, “do you even need them for?”

Loki thought about it. He settled on a half-truth: “Revenge.”

“Revenge?”

“And saving most of the universe from being slaughtered, I suppose.”

“You want to save the world.”

“I could always let someone else do it,” Loki admitted with a shrug, “but it's more satisfying if I do it myself.”

Anderson stilled. “Is it anything to do with—what were they called?—the Infinity Stones?”

“Yes, that's correct.”

“Why not leave it to the Avengers?”

“Like I said: revenge. And I don't trust them enough to survive whatever's coming. Unlike the Avengers, I have… somewhat of a history with the enemy. I know his tricks. His weaknesses. I should be the one to fight him.”

Anderson peered over his shoulder, then back at Loki. “I don't know what's happening,” he said, shaking his head. “I don't know what the odds are; the way you put it, they're terrible. If you really think you can win this, though, I'll help you.”

Loki smiled. “I appreciate it.”

Anderson returned to his studio, and Loki followed.

On one of the steel surfaces rested a pair of silvery greaves, and beside them, a similarly fashioned chestpiece. Loki picked up the greaves and looked them over. They were well-shaped, curved and bearing several thin layers, and the belts to secure them were dyed black and stitched with a pleasantly contrasting white. Appearance hadn't and couldn't have been prioritized, but an effort was clearly made in spite of everything.

“What material is this?” he asked.

“Titanium alloy,” Anderson replied, sticking the sword inside a furnace. “Same thing Tony Stark uses. Or used. Dunno if it's the same thing in that new suit of his.”

“May I?”

“Go for it.”

Loki bent and buckled the armour to his shins, minding the glamour he still had on. He wiggled one leg, then the other, and then stopped. It wasn't worth the risk; magic of any kind would wreck his cover in an instant, and anyway, silver wasn't such a bad colour. Still, he stood, and with a wave of his hand, he brought a shower of green sparks upon the metal. They rained down the surface and pooled on the concrete floor with a sound like shattered glass before fading entirely, revealing a gold colouring underneath—a permanent glamour safe from unwilled dissipation, much like the ones he wore so regularly.

“That looks much better, doesn't it?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Anderson said, staring wide-eyed at the new colour, “yeah, that looks really nice. But how—”

“Don't worry about it,” Loki said with a smile.

Anderson spent another moment examining the armour, then gave a nervous, humourless laugh and returned his gaze to the sword.

Loki turned and lifted the breastplate. It was two-sided, with the same leather belts linking the front and back panels. He unhooked the left side's clasps and then froze, suddenly and uncomfortably aware he'd need to shed his civilian's glamour if he wanted a true gauge of the fit. Anderson was still busy finalizing the sword's temper; if he was quick, he could recast the disguise and no one would be the wiser—twenty seconds in and out, he estimated. Or…

“Do you believe people can change?” Loki asked, glancing at him.

“Sure,” Anderson replied. “People change all the time.”

“What about criminals?”

“Yeah, of course. Something you did in the past shouldn't define you for the rest of your life.”

“You say that,” Loki muttered, “but I don't think you'd be too pleased if someone of ill past were in this room with you.”

Anderson looked up from the sword, an equally frightened and curious haze appearing in his greenish eyes. The weapon was half-molten, unwieldy to strike with, but by the way his grip tightened around the pommel, it was obvious he had no issue using it if need be. His tone remained neutral, however; “I'd give him a chance,” he said.

Loki forced a weary smile in response and placed the breastplate on the counter. He brought a hand to his collar, leaving a couple inches' space between skin and fabric, and swept downwards. The cotton façade dissolved in a flash of gold, following the motion he'd laid out for it and leaving no trace of the unimposing shirt and pants he'd forged himself; the black-and-green leather armour underneath was now the only thing visible. It was vastly different from the ceremonial plates he'd worn when last he visited Midgard, but Anderson must have recognized something in the style, or maybe the magic, as anticipated. The look on his face was telling: fear, astonishment—forgiveness, too, Loki realized with a glint of relief.

“Would you still give him that chance?” he asked.

“I think I would,” Anderson replied, chuckling a little in spite of himself. “Now try that on.” He motioned towards the armour. “I want to see how it looks on you.”

Loki cast the same golden glamour on the metal and then carefully slid it on, making sure nothing got caught in its edges. He snapped the closures shut and tightened them accordingly, and then looked up at Anderson with a grin. “I think it fits perfectly. No one would ever be able to tell they're separate sets of armour.”

“You know what? I think you're right,” Anderson said, matching the grin. “It needs something more, though.”

“Wait.” Loki stepped away from the counter and searched the depths of his holding space for a particular item, a stretch of fabric that was one of maybe two or three he had of its kind. He called its energy and felt it vanish and then rematerialize on his back in the same golden shimmer, settling loosely against the curve of his spine. “Something like that?”

Anderson nodded. He pulled the sword from the fire, scrutinizing its length for imperfections, and plunged it in the neighbouring barrel, where it sizzled loudly for a few seconds. When the smoke faded, he took it out, shook the oil off, and set it on the table.

It was a simple broadsword with simple details, sharp as a razor and polished to a mirror-like shine—a fine weapon, Loki admitted to himself, despite the different technology and materials. Pressing his finger to the tip would barely leave a mark and he had the sinking suspicion that Thanos wouldn't be much better, but it more than sufficed.

“I still think you're insane to face all this on your own,” Anderson said, wiping away whatever hadn't cleared on its own with a cloth, “but damn—you're strong.” He stuffed the cloth in his pocket and sighed. “I've seen what you can do, and I think you've got what it takes, so good luck, Loki. Get out there and show 'em hell.”

Loki smiled and took the sword.

 

Chapter Text

This, Tony thought, was probably a bad idea. Most of what he did was, but this crowned his list of ill-planned moves: keeping the ship on its set course. The destination was hidden and could have been filled with any number of threats, and even if they knew where they were headed, surely it was better to return to Earth and help protect the Mind Stone? But then, its owner could protect it just fine, and if he couldn't, someone would step up; there were enough independent fighters there and even if the Avengers weren't quite what they used to be, they wouldn't just ignore a battle.

Right?

Past the apprehension, Tony felt a little guilty. He felt bad for leaving on such short notice and for leaving the planet to fend for itself, and never mind Pepper—and that fear, seriously. What if he died out here?

He crept out of his seat and wandered to one of the far walls, where he could see the ragged seal at the other end of the ship if he turned a certain way. The engines droned on in the distance, almost nagging as they worked. There was, according to the dashboard, about a half hour to landing—or maybe it was less now; he hadn't looked in a while. Maybe it was more. The numbers fluctuated enough that he couldn't really be sure. Whatever it was, they couldn't back out now. They were too close.

If there was any additional push required, Tony got it in that next second: a letter, same author, soundlessly floated onto the crate beside him with a flit of green. He almost laughed, but the gesture came as an uneasy, humourless smile instead. He took the paper in one hand and began to read.

Stark,

Thanos has a planned rendezvous shortly on the remains of the planet Titan, where the Black Order were supposed to provide him with Earth's Infinity Stones. If the rumours are true (that they're dead), then he'll be alone, and assuming you have a quick enough means of transport, I recommend you ambush him there. If you do decide to attack, bring all the help you can. I assure you, he’s stronger than he looks, and the force of any number of Infinity Stones is not one to be reckoned with.

I’ll be watching.

Regards,

A friend

Yep—he definitely wasn't backing out now.

He rested the letter on the crate, where it had materialized, and considered the last part. They had three people now. No, two; he wasn't particularly keen on including Peter in the fight. It was just Strange and him.

Titan seemed a more than likely candidate for the unknown location outlined on the screens, and if that were the case, it was an opportunity they couldn't pass up. Tony wondered if maybe the author was only feigning loyalty, if they were counting on him coming so they could ambush him back, if he was setting himself up for death, but that—he sighed. All those warnings couldn't possibly be a strategy of that sort. Were they?

He tried not to think about it.

He dissolved the Iron Man just long enough to store the letter with all the others, then reformed it and went to the front of the ship. If he knew anything about Strange, then they could find the help as soon as they needed it—portals and all. Exactly who they would ask was a different story. Bruce, that other guy Tony had met, those would work, but four wasn't much of an improvement from two. If they were lucky, some of the Avengers might pitch in. Other than that…

They were absolutely going to die. God damn.

“Bring whatever help we can get,” Tony said, turning towards Strange.

Strange replied with a raise of his eyebrow and a halfhearted, “I'll see what I can do.”

Tony nodded and sat in his prior spot.

 

Chapter Text

Loki never planned on coming to Titan. He had hoped, maybe, that the fight would come to him, or no—he hadn't hoped; that was the wrong word. He didn't quite want to face Thanos, didn't know if he'd be able to, but he still wanted to be part of what went down. He didn't know how; he just knew it was meant to happen. Thanos needed to die at his hands.

That was then, after he'd decided survival wasn't enough and before the steady rumours had shown, oh, wait—there was nothing. No signs of a fight, no signs of Thanos, and on many levels, Loki had to admit, that was fine. Revenge was him in every way, and the things he'd done for it ranged from reasonable to utterly ridiculous, but he had lines. When the payout didn't match the risk, he simply forwent it. He'd done so countless times over the years, even when he'd wanted, needed otherwise, because it hadn't been worth it. Lots in life wasn't. This? This was one of those times. He had managed a flawless escape to one of the most fiercely guarded planets he knew, safety, to put it reluctantly, and why would he give that up to rejoin the fray? Fifteen minutes max with Thanos, what would he do? Kill him? Yes, he wanted that—gods, he wanted it. The yearning physically ached him, hammering at his insides like a bad meal, but if he died—

If? No, he would die, alright. Dull as Thanos was, he wouldn't be fooled twice. He'd strike the first chance he got, and then, goodbye, new life. There was something else, though: the 50/50, one-in-two chance of survival were Thanos to succeed in his plan—and did Loki ever trust him to. Between the bastard's furious tenacity and the Avengers' incompetence…

He took a moment to do the math.

Leaving now, he decided, would give him a far, far better shot. And he really did want to kill Thanos—hell, even torture him a little if he could. Norns knew it would never amount to those days, but just the gesture was more than enough.

Except.

There was no distance too great for Loki; his magic alone had taken him to each and every corner of the universe, working as faithfully as the stars in the sky and the rise of the sun. While ships and other vehicles were his preferred transport, offering comfort and ease at the cost of efficiency, he had always been fond of spacial arts, with everything from portals and teleportations to something as hilariously abused as a pocket dimension for the sake of storage having a place in his life. Given some time and effort, he could have gone to Titan; he'd gone much farther with no difficulty. With his powers as they were, though, whittled with overexertion and a lack of adequate rest, he'd be lucky if he reached the other end of North America—if he tapped into his emergency reserves, perhaps Mexico, right before he collapsed of magical exhaustion.

He had left the ship because it was too unsafe; that part was unavoidable. What bugged him so much was that if he'd planned on a fight, he could have stayed in that tavern, and from there, that distance to Titan would have been eons smaller. From here, it was impossible.

Except he was Loki. He'd figure something out. He always did.

He'd done crazier things, anyway.

He spent several long, fretful minutes crouched by the blacksmith's shop, debating his next course of action. He could try to warp, but all he'd do was dig himself even deeper into the middle of nowhere—or he could wait, unaware of what was happening and exactly how close the genocide was, which he'd already crossed off his list. Other than those two, there was nothing. It felt like the only option he had left was to request Asgardian help, which was a patently humiliating proposal to say the least; at most, a waste of time. If killing Thanos meant anything at all to him, though, there was no getting around it.

Loki didn't bother renewing his glamour before heading down the street, still mulling over his choices as he walked. He had the decency to whisk his sword away before too many people noticed, but he had more pressing concerns now than being recognized. That was a problem for another time.

He slowed as he passed the alley from earlier, noting the faint energy in the air and wondering if he could trace it. The first attempt proved fruitless; unsurprisingly, so did the second and the third. It was hard to pinpoint a location when he didn't dare use any more magic than what was present.

Could the pair even help him?

Loki narrowed his eyes. “Svala,” he began, leaning against one of the walls. Maybe she could hear intentions, no magnification necessary. Unlikely, but… “If you're listening, I need your help.”

A second passed in silence. Then another, and another, until it became clear he wouldn't receive an answer. He sighed and left the alley, half-seriously calculating just how slim his chances of finding any Asgardians were—or anyone who could offer assistance, for that matter, whether through a joint spell or lending him some energy. He didn’t care. The skies were darkening at a disheartening pace and he was no closer to his goal, and past the terrifying odds, past the unrivalled probability that he would die before even setting foot on a battlefield, it broke him to know that after everything he’d been put through, he wouldn’t even be the one to kill Thanos. He didn’t deserve an easy death, but maybe it was what he would get after all—and that made Loki furious.

Fuck it.

He sat on the steps of a random shop and readied a transmitting spell. “Any Asgardians capable of magic,” he said, squeezing out the most minimal amount of energy required to send his message to those that fit the criteria, and only those that fit the criteria. “This is Loki. I need your help.”

Continuing to save his strength was meaningless; he didn’t have enough for a warp either way. With that, he repeated the message a few times, making sure it spread to the town's edge—past that, even. Svala and her mother weren't the only ones here. Someone would hear him.

He let the last call fade and waited.

He sat there for a very long time, idly watching the people that passed him by. Some of them stopped to stare, and he stared back with a cheeky smile and wave in an effort to distract himself from the situation. Sometimes people sat beside him, asking how he was doing and why he was wearing that outfit and never finding him familiar. He answered in near-truths, omitting things like his own reasons for revenge and his disbelief that the Avengers would be a match for Thanos. Some people stayed after hearing the spiel. Most left.

One person sat down and only asked, “What kind of help?”

Loki turned to face the newcomer, a thin, nondescript blonde in a grey blouse and skirt, and smiled. He almost couldn't believe his luck. “Travel help,” he said. “I need to get to Titan.”

“Titan,” the woman mirrored, head cocked, eyes clouded with deliberation. “Where is Titan?”

“Far from here. Too far to reach on my own, I'm afraid. Even I'm not that strong,” Loki added with a wry chuckle.

She seemed to consider this, squinting at nothing, then placed a hand on his shoulder. He stifled a flinch and watched as she read how much magic he had in him. Her face curved into a frown as she pulled away. “It won't be easy,” she said, shaking her head, “but for you, dear Loki, anything.”

“'Dear'!” he cried with a burst of laughter. “What have I ever done for Asgard to deserve such a title?”

“Everything,” she said, expression darkening. “You risked your life for us. Without you, our numbers wouldn't be twenty-seven. They'd be zero.”

Twenty-seven, he wanted to tell her, wasn't enough, but he merely sighed and looked to the street once more, dazedly eyeing the bruise-coloured sky from where it peeked out behind the buildings. The cool, late-day breeze did nothing to calm him; he still felt an impending urgency, a sense of doom and he had to hurry and what else, and the chill only reminded him that he was running out of time. He was going to die along with—

Would Thanos take into account the slaughter on the ship? Or would it be just as random as before?

It wasn't half. It was never half.

Loki breathed in, out, and asked, “What will it take?”

“Concentration,” the woman replied. “Another mage or two. I can't do this alone, Loki. I'm sorry.”

“Then we send out another call,” he said, closing his eyes, “and we wait.”

 

Chapter Text

Loki opened his eyes to a vast, star-filled expanse. He breathed in, wiggled his arms and legs, and stood. Beneath him was the half-visible, ethereal gnarl of an ancient branch, several metres thick and stretching so far the ends faded over the galaxy's horizon. Over his shoulder, he saw a tiny, blue planet under the watchful eye of a single moon; in front of him, the infinite tangle of Yggdrasil's limbs filled the universe like veins in a body. He knew the sight like the back of his hand—every curve, every corner. It was a second home.

Long-distance teleportations were notoriously fickle. The Bifröst was the preferred option in such cases, serving as an assist for the necessary magic, but the effort he’d need to access it on his own was everything but practical. The other option, and the main one, was travelling via the world tree.

(Technically, Yggdrasil and the Bifröst were both extensions of each other; technicalities, however, also proved that they were different enough to call for a distinction when speaking in terms of magic.)

Teleporting, in all of the forms Loki knew, at least, meant harnessing Yggdrasil's power to form a type of cosmic slingshot. This was usually done from afar, and he usually did—flung himself from point A to B with no in between, simply let the magic carry him away. There were times, though, when it was better suited to traverse the world tree directly, using a complex blend of phasing, partial astral projection, and very, very good balance. The logistics were absurd, and most days, he didn't even bother with them; all he knew was that it worked. He called it skywalking, and so far, he could count on one hand the number of people who could do the same.

Lengths skewed on such trips. So did time; one could spend an eternity walking along the world tree's bark and still arrive on land just moments later. Thus, he wasn't too concerned with how long it took to locate the planet. He knew roughly where it resided in the universe and what it looked like, and that certainly wasn't enough to find it easily, but it was enough to find it nonetheless. He just had to search. With blurred spacetime on his hands and a surplus of borrowed energy, he could more than afford it—thank the Norns.

He took a slow, gingerly step forward. The magic held. He took another, saw the same result, and then began a regular pace.

Loki hadn't skywalked in years. There were times when he'd come close, sure, exploiting the gaps as needed and using bits of the technique in short-distance warps, but he had never really skywalked then. Not properly. In part, it was because it simply hadn't been necessary. Ships and other implements sufficed for most trips, and those they couldn't just weren't common; such travel bore little presence in his life these days.

There was the other problem, of course: the actual mechanisms behind the method were…

Well.

The void gaped, its unforgiving blackness pockmarked by stars and nebulae. It wasn't particularly cold, nor did it affect his breathing or the way he moved. He wasn't near enough to feel the universe in its entirety—but a misstep would change that in an instant. The lines here were finicky, dancing between existences second by second, and if he fell, there would be little to catch him. By the time he returned, he would be in the opposite corner of space, days, weeks, months away from any hope—if he even returned in the first place.

Maybe someone would find him again.

The thought made his guts churn. He focused on the ground under him, the throbbing in his ears, and kept walking.

He would not fall. He would find Titan, find Thanos and the Avengers—assuming they hadn't died themselves—and everything would be just fine.

His foot slipped.

A voice in his head cried out—

(he's falling falling falling with no end in sight, and the stars look so goddamn beautiful and the when the weightlessness hits, he's suddenly flying, he's not falling anymore, and he's so focused on that childlike wonder that he won't even notice when his body gives out)

—and then he was back on the Bifröst after all, eyes wet with tears, a sweaty hand barely clinging to the bridge's shattered remains. (Or was it Gungnir? He didn't even remember.) The agony of knowing was too much to bear, and after one last bitter look at his not-brother, his not-father, one last wordless apology, he let go. He watched as their forms distanced, as the red shift of light took effect, and closed his eyes.

He wanted to die. He would die. Eventually, even he would succumb to the void's unforgiving clutches; the cold would prove too much, or the lack of oxygen, or perhaps it would be something as simple as starvation. Regardless, he would die sooner or later.

He tried to return to himself, but the memory held.

The cold, ironically, was the first to get to him. It was so tempting to shed his Æsir form and embrace the shielding Jötunn skin beneath, but the thought was shameful. For as long as he was conscious, he didn't release it. He didn't know what happened after that.

He awoke an indeterminate amount of time later—a day, a month, he couldn't know—in a small, dark room. His senses followed one by one, and he realized his wrists were tightly bound in spell-warding cuffs, his eyes were dry and scratchy, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. He didn't panic; instead, his first thought was he'd been found and rescued by Asgard, and they worried he would attempt something foolish again. His instincts were screaming at him, though. Something was very, very wrong, they said.

He still wanted to die.

If he could use magic, he would have immediately summoned his sharpest weapon and brought it through his throat in one swift motion; if the force didn’t kill him, bleeding out would. But the cuffs wouldn’t open without a key and they were too tight to consider options the likes of breaking his hands, so he sighed, leaned back against the concrete walls, and did nothing.

The image flickered.

Loki was still on the wooden path, still walking, and far enough from Earth that the planet appeared no different from the stars around it.

He knew this would happen.

A few seconds whirred by, blind to his heart and everything around it. There was only him in those seconds, breathlessly poised on the world tree's limbs, afraid and filled with an aching want to go home, go to sleep, and dream away all that had happened. Ragnarök. Thanos. The void. He stopped and looked at the endless lights surrounding him, creeping so widely they didn't even fit in his field of view, and slowly steadied his breaths. He hadn't been walking long; he estimated about fifteen, twenty minutes on his end. Even so, he was growing tired of the labyrinth, tired of the memories—no wonder he never did this anymore. The only thing that kept him going was the chance of seeing Thanos perish. At his hand would be a bonus, but it didn't even matter anymore. He just wanted him dead.

He had to practically force himself to resume his trek, curling through twists and turns and doing everything he could to avoid looking down. Sometimes the path was completely blocked and he had to jump off the side, onto another route, and it was then that the fear hit him worst. He would fall, his mind kept telling him—didn't matter how many times he'd done this, how good he was at it, he would fall, and they wouldn't pity him, not again. He'd die outright.

Somewhere, something knocked against something else with a loud thud, and the sound shot his mind back to the next part of the memory.

There were voices outside. Loki tried to decipher them, but they were too far away to pick out words. He knew he heard concern, and he knew they were talking about him—guessed, rather; he couldn't be sure. Then there was silence, and someone came and unlocked his cell. He steeled his shoulders and tried not to flinch as a tall, heavyset man of a heather complexion quietly entered and closed the door from the inside.

Loki was still crumpled in chains, still wondering how best to kill himself, and he stared up at the man with a bleak curiosity as he began to speak. He remembered the conversation nearly word for word.

“I’ve heard of you,” the man said, his voice a low rumble. “Loki Odinson.”

“Laufeyson,” Loki softly answered. “I am no child of Odin.”

“Laufeyson, then. I'm sorry for keeping you like this. It was… necessary.”

“Why so?”

“We didn't know how you would react. We've never met, after all.”

“Precautions,” Loki said with a weak nod. “Of course. I understand.”

The man paused. “What do you desire, Loki?”

“That's a very broad question,” he said, tilting his head slightly. “I don't desire anything, really. Your name, I suppose, and”—his lips quirked into a smile—“to be back rotting in space.”

“Thanos,” the man answered. “Why do you want to return?”

“It doesn't matter. Just let me go. Whatever you want, you're wasting your time.”

Thanos shook his head. “You're too valuable to lose.”

If there were any red flags raised, and there were, Loki simply couldn't bring himself to care. He was more focused on the sheer absurdity of Thanos's statement than the grave he was digging by entertaining his small talk. “What makes you think that?” he tried, chuckling.

“You're strong. I know what you can do.”

“Like what? Disgrace my family? No.” Loki closed his eyes, breathed in. “Let me go. I'm no use to you.”

Thanos didn't respond. He simply turned and left, locking the door behind him, and Loki slumped against the wall and watched as his silhouette faded into the hallway's murky depths. Something had changed; he didn't know what. He'd said the wrong thing. It should have helped, should have gotten him out, but he was still chained up, still wanting to die—

He shivered. His thighs were numb; even his armour couldn't keep the stone's bite from his Æsir-shifted skin. What a laugh, he thought, coughing out a wry sob—the Jötunn king's own son couldn't bear something as mild as a cool floor! No wonder he left him. No wonder everyone else did, too. Even Thanos; that was the last Loki saw of him until—

Right before he got out, if he remembered correctly, which he didn't. Not really. It was a very long time was all he remembered. Thanos left like everyone else.

Loki breathed in, dimly aware of the faint jumble of branches at his feet, and forced himself to face what lay in front of him and nothing else. Stars, planets, all shades of coloured gasses—everything he found most beautiful, a sight that never ceased to amaze him after so many years. The darkness reminded him too much of the past to keep a clear mind, which was never good in this plane, and he tried, tried so hard, but the memories didn't stop. He'd reached tears now, trying and failing to fight them as they picked at his thoughts, wild, unrelenting. They wouldn't leave.

He evened his breathing, muttered a prayer to no one, and focused on his destination. The planet was close; he could feel it. His intentions were enough to bring a knowing light to his mind, guiding him by instinct. All he had to do was find a landing point.

He never wanted to enter the void again after that.

The path broke off and he leapt onto another branch. From there, he could see a sand-coloured orb taking shape, and he sighed, his relief almost palpable. He reached the planet’s surface within minutes, grateful for the slurred rules, and sat down.

“I found it,” he said, thinking back to the city, those helping him power the spell.

The voice of the first woman he'd met rang in his mind: “How long?”

“Too long.” Loki shook his head. The tears were still present; hopefully they couldn't hear. Hesitantly, he added, “Thank you.”

“I'll leave you to it.”

The presence faded, and Loki set to work. He pushed his intentions to the magic’s fore and calmed his thoughts, making sure nothing of the trip remained in his heart, and with a single deep breath, he entered the physical plane.

 

Chapter Text

 

Past the crumbled remains of the hill he'd perched on, hundreds of metres away, Loki had his eyes trained on a worn, barren clearing. Rubble from an ancient city surrounded its surface, and when the wind picked up, clouds of dust rose out of the ground. There was no sound, no movement that he could see, nothing that signalled anyone or anything lived there. It was unimposing beyond measure, somewhere that was difficult to imagine as a grand meeting point. He figured it was intentional; no one would dare stick their noses in such a depressing place, least of all someone as large and important as Thanos himself. Other than what was probably some symbolism, being his home planet and all, it made for a good strategy.

Despite the motionless, lifeless air, Loki could sense several presences hidden in the distance, and although they didn't strike him as particularly hostile, he stayed scarce nonetheless. A confrontation wasn't something he wanted to risk, not now. He was too close.

He leaned back against the dirt, not quite caring about the marks it left on his clothes, and turned his gaze to the sky. The sun and moons were lost to the clouds' depths, as was… the large, ring-shaped ship he only noticed when it was the size of his fist. He blinked.

The vessel screeched to a halt a ways from the clearing, where it immediately toppled onto its side with a deafening boom. Flames burst from its seams and Loki couldn't help but cough out a tiny laugh as the door opened, revealing a thoroughly annoyed-looking Tony Stark, and behind him, Doctor Strange and a scant, red-clad boy he didn't recognize. Watching them collectively abandon the ship was almost amusing—until the strangers he'd felt sprung from their vantage, clearly under the impression that the three were their enemy.

Loki tensed, half-ready to intercept the fight if needed, but it seemed to resolve on its own. They agreed on a plan and disappeared behind separate hills and crevices, weapons drawn, eyes sharp, and he let the magic at his hands fade. He'd join them when the moment came, whenever and whatever that was—and then he had the rest to deal with, such as explaining himself and what came next. That wasn't his concern now.

He felt a sudden buzz of power in the distance then, and he cast a few feverish glances around him almost instinctively. The craggy terrain hid whatever was responsible, but a sickness in his stomach gave him a decent enough idea of whose it was. He stood and cloaked himself.

Between the debris was Thanos, ambling through the clearing with his shoulders high and a tight frown on his face. The gauntlet he wore had a total of four gems embedded in it—not the full amount, but certainly a terrifying one. Loki tried to see which ones he had. Power, Space, Reality, and Soul. At least he didn't have the Time Stone.

It was Strange who greeted him, having remained in the open unlike the others. Loki couldn’t hear most of the conversation from his position and didn’t bother enhancing it. He got the gist: Titan’s destruction, Thanos's spurned plan to prevent it, and how he sought to keep the same fate from befalling other worlds—or as Loki knew it, a poor excuse for genocide. Most people saw it as such.

There was a beat of silence following the last sentence, at which the heroes took their cue. They leapt out together, catching Thanos from all sides. Loki spent another handful of seconds on his hill, assessing the situation, before carefully descending into the clearing to watch, mindful of his distance and visibility. Not yet. He'd know when.

He found a vantage at the back of the crowd just in time to see a thin, blue-skinned woman join the fray, quickly and easily distracting Thanos with just her presence. It was only for an instant, but it was enough for Strange and two others to pin him with a mix of magic and muscle. Another scrambled up his back and clamped her hands around his head, sedating him through what seemed like her mind alone. The rest of the group held him down in their own ways as Tony grasped the gauntlet with both hands. His thrusters went up and he pulled, kept pulling until it began to slip off, and then pulled even harder.

Loki skirted them loosely, careful not to get caught in the chaos. Thanos had his fist clenched, but he wavered often enough that he couldn't regain a full grip on the gauntlet each time it moved a little farther out. His focus was barely there; Loki caught him staring at nothing in particular, trying and failing to fight whatever the woman on his shoulders was doing. He drifted in and out of a conversation with one of the strangers, drawing the words out between long grunts of effort, and Loki wondered just how powerful she was—not powerful enough, he decided at once, as the discussion seemed to be dragging Thanos out of her hold. The pain on her face only worsened with each word.

“Stop,” Loki growled, taking a few steps toward the man. “We're so close. Don't ruin this.”

He didn't hear, of course, as Loki was still both invisible and inaudible. Still, it never hurt to try.

Strange caught Loki's eye in the next moment and he stopped, startled, as he appeared to be looking directly at him—expectantly, almost. Waiting for him to make a move. Loki held his gaze for another second, heart pounding, and then turned. The gauntlet was down to Thanos's last knuckles and the man was halfway through his sentence when he dropped his invisibility, ran up, and rammed him into the dirt.

Loki rolled off him and clambered to his feet with a wince. “Don't be so reckless,” he said, dusting himself off. “We're for too close to victory.”

The man only stared.

The gauntlet flew off a second later and landed several metres away with a dull thud. Thanos staggered to the ground, knocked back by the force, and Loki watched with a hushed shock, along with the rest of the crowd, as he stood, squeezed his now bare left hand into a fist, and glared.

And then Thanos looked right at him. The world stuttered, curling in on him like a bad dream, and Loki stepped back, breathless, as he narrowed his eyes and said, “I killed you.”

Behind him, the crowd drifted apart, and he swallowed and stood a little straighter. “Clearly,” he responded, his voice foreign, “you didn't.” He smiled, half-conscious of his heart's sustained racing, and continued, “You know me better than that. Did you really think I'd give myself up so easily?”

“I broke your neck.”

Loki barely even heard him.

He didn't think this through. Oh, Norns.

He glanced over his shoulder, almost hoping someone would say something, but the crowd remained silent. This was his fight, they decided, seemingly all at once. Only Tony, who had removed his headpiece, spared any remark—and it was in the form of a wordless nod, a you got this. It was all him.

This was the moment he was looking for.

Loki maintained the eye contact a second longer before turning back towards Thanos. “Did you?” he said, just as he formed an illusion to hold his place and broke away, veiled in fresh invisibility. “You idiot,” the false him continued, chuckling, while he circled behind Thanos, ears ringing, heart pounding. “You fell for the oldest trick in the book.”

“Watch your tone, dog.”

His stomach dropped. “I'm stating facts,” he managed, grateful for the magic's steady speech. Through its eyes, he could see an all too familiar sneer carved into Thanos's face, and he breathed in heavily. “You'll forgive me.”

“What trick?”

The illusion vanished and Loki became visible once more. Thanos turned.

“Magic, dear,” Loki said.

“Clever,” Thanos said, an unamused smile on his lips. “I must have forgotten your title.”

“Which one?” Loki asked, summoning the sword in his right hand. He flipped it into one grip, then another, testing the feel, and returned the smile. “I have so many, you know. I tend to forget them myself.”

Off to the side, Strange dragged the gauntlet away with a spell, into the far end of the clearing and out of anyone's reach but his. There was no point trying to get it back now. “God of lies,” Thanos said, sending a split-second scowl his way before turning to face Loki again.

“Because,” Loki said, “what is magic but a well-polished lie? You hurt me, Thanos.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked, looking at the sword. “Stab me? That went so well for you last time.”

Loki wasn't trying last time, though, not really. Even so, even if he tried now, a sword would do nothing. None of his weapons would. Whatever that race was like, they were too sturdy for him. They couldn't be cut, they couldn't be beaten—what could he do? Were he at his full strength, he could have blown the whole area to dust, everyone and everything in it included. Now, he only had…

He made the decision before he even knew what it was.

“I can try,” he said, widening the distance between them and chipping away at his Æsir glamour as he did. It took some effort, but slowly, the layers began to fall away, clearing all but his appearance in seconds. The sword was a decoy. Thanos wouldn't expect this.

“I'll kill you now. You can't get away twice.”

“Is that a threat?” Loki flicked his wrist and formed a small cloud of frost in his palm, tinting the skin a dark, ashen blue as he did. It should have made him uncomfortable, but he couldn't bring himself to care—not this time. No one seemed to notice, anyway. “You're not in a position for threats and you know it. I have my own magic; you don't.”

“I don't need magic,” Thanos said, advancing slightly.

Loki stepped back to match him. “You had two Infinity Stones and still failed to kill me,” he said, expressionless. He twitched his hand again and the cloud went opaque, swirling white with a condensed chill. “You claim you don't need magic, but if you couldn't succeed when you had it, why would now be any different? You'll fail now, too. Don't delude yourself.”

“Watch your tone,” Thanos growled.

“I refuse,” Loki calmly responded. “I've been watching it long enough. I think we could use some bluntness, don't you agree?”

Before Thanos could react any further, Loki flung the cloud at his breastplate, instantly coating the armour in a thick layer of ice—metal and otherwise. The look on his face was comparable to confusion until the cold spread to the inside. He panicked then; some of it was likely pain, from where the freezing metal contacted his skin.

“You should have gone with an alloy,” Loki said, and he smiled again, wholly, fearlessly. The pit was still there. He just ignored it.

“I don't need armour to kill you,” Thanos hissed, clawing at his chest.

Loki shook his head and brought his free hand up, filling the sword with kinetic energy. The plan was such a cheap tactic that he almost expected it to fail, but he could spare an attempt. The most he'd do was embarrass himself—and how much more could he embarrass himself when he was already using his Jötunn magic? So, he took a deep breath, raised the sword, and struck the metal with a wide, heavy slash.

It shattered instantly.

In those brief several seconds when Thanos was still reeling from the blow and Loki was still just a little surprised at his success, he became aware of someone's loud protests somewhere behind him, someone screaming no, don't you dare, he's mine—but the cries stopped as soon as they started. He swore he heard realization, recognition in the voice, and he wondered distantly if the stranger knew him, if they had decided that perhaps he needed revenge more than they did. Whether it was the Avengers' renowned arguing skills or just cosmic luck on his behalf, he wasn't sure. Frankly, it didn't matter.

He sighed and sent the weapon away in a glimmer of green.

“Hey, Loki!” Tony called behind him. “Need any help?”

“No, thank you,” he answered, glancing over his shoulder. “I'd rather do this alone.”

Tony nodded and left it at that.

Loki spared another moment and then brought a thick, foot-long spear of ice in front of him in one swift motion, cautiously eyeing Thanos as he did. He could almost feel the colour in his hand climbing as his body fought against the foreign spell, but he didn't hesitate; he brandished the weapon proudly, keeping a tight expression as he sent a burst of kinetic energy through it. A faint hum sounded as the magic flowed inside.

He hurled the ice into Thano's shoulder the instant he made to attack, pushing through to the other side with a gush of blood. Thanos stifled a scream and stumbled back.

“Do you know how many times I tried to kill myself?” Loki hissed, ramming another shard through his body. The scream broke loose this time. “Too many to fucking count!”

“I gave you a purpose!” Thanos roared.

“You didn't do shit!” Loki roared back. “You took me at my most vulnerable and broke me down until I wanted to kill my own damn brother is what you did!”

“And you didn't already? You told me you wanted to make him pay!”

“I never said killing him was the way to go about it,” Loki snapped. “Don't you dare twist my words.”

Thanos didn't bother responding, instead saying, “You were so passionate, Loki. I saw you out there. It wasn't just revenge. You trusted the plan. You fought for it.”

“What plan?” Loki cried, barking a wry laugh. “Saving the universe? I fought for myself, you dense bastard, not your stupid plan. I knew from that first blade you ordered into my skin that you didn't give a single sliver of a shit about saving the universe. You never wanted to save anything. You just wanted power. Tell me, am I wrong?”

Thanos only glared, trying and failing to remove the ice. His fingers merely slid as he attempted to grip the newly melting surface.

Loki almost found it funny—almost. His expression harshened and he formed another rod in warning. “Answer me!”

“Yes,” Thanos finally said, maintaining his glare.

“Then what did you want? What did you hope to accomplish by nearly wiping Asgard from the face of the universe? Every great society that ever lived, Thanos—what did you think would happen when you slaughtered them as you did? It wasn't half,” Loki growled. “It was never half. They all perished at your hands.”

“You—”

Loki thrust the ice through his side, earning a loud grunt and swear. “And tell me, what”—he raised his voice to near-yelling—“did you hope to accomplish by torturing me?” He crafted another several shards. “By forcing me to kill?”

The ice ripped through Thanos before he could answer. Whatever response he'd planned died out in the pain, and he coughed and tried again, only for Loki to immediately cut him off.

“Thanos, dear,” he snarled, “won't you give me another lecture on entropy? I'm begging you, tell me how killing trillions will fix poverty! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“If I were stronger—”

“Oh, you would kill me, no doubt.” Loki grinned, a wild, cold rage appearing in his eyes. “You would kill me with a snap of your fingers, wouldn't you? But you're not. You're here, clinging to your pathetic life by the skin of your teeth. You petty—” He cut himself off, laughing at his inability to even come up with an apt enough word. “All that for me. I can't believe you. What a good thing I'm just as petty,” he added with another grin, “if not even more.”

Again, before Thanos could muster a reply, Loki swiftly formed a few more shards and shot them at random, watching the holes they left with a low chuckle. He could feel the absence of a glamour as his body struggled to reaccustom to his natal powers, see it whenever he raised his hands—blue skin, dark nails—and he should've felt naked, afraid. But he didn't.

“You miserable sack of shit,” he hissed. “You're not worth my time. If you were—oh, the things I would do to you. I'd make you wish you'd never been born. You think you know pain?” Another laugh wracked him, unwitting and uncaring of his rage, as he spoke those timeworn words. “I'd show you pain.”

The next chunk of ice sent a creeping sensation up his neck, and he flinched, knowing even without looking that the colour had reached past his collar. Magic like that could only keep it localized for so long. Still, he felt nothing. Whatever came of his complexion was worth it.

He waited for an answer, heard none, and then whipped the ice at Thanos's chest, toppling him to his knees in a single blow.

Thanos didn't get up. He coughed hard, spluttering on his own blood, and forced himself to face Loki, his scowl clear even through the liquid. The heroes stared wide-eyed at them, none daring to speak.

“From the very depths of my heart,” Loki said, forming the largest spear, “Thanos, the Mad Titan, the beast who believed his ends justified the means: I hope you spend the rest of eternity rotting in whatever hole you crawled out of. May death reject you.” He grew the weapon to several metres of solid ice, filled it with energy, and poised it in front of him—and something in his eyes changed, an oddness to the feel; red, he knew. He didn't care. “May all the pain you caused haunt you to the ends of time,” he went on, his lips a thin, mirthless line. “May you never see even a semblance of relief, you selfish fuck.

With that, he brought the ice through Thanos's head, pinning him in his knelt position and sending a gush of bloodied tissue out the back. He gagged a little as it splashed against the ground and felt the overbearing urge to look away, but he held his gaze—clenched one fist, swallowed uncomfortably, locked eyes until every proof that life had ever existed in them had faded, and then kept staring until long after.

For that single, brief moment, all he knew was the numb shock of his accomplishment. He couldn't think about anything else. Thanos was dead. Thanos was dead.

 

 

 

 

The last veins of frost around Loki's fingers quietly melted away over the course of a few seconds, and with them, the blue tint. He didn't know if the rest of him had followed yet. He absently touched his face, like he might've felt heritage lines, but save for a half-congealed splatter of blood on his cheek, there was nothing unusual to the texture—no grooves, no raised marks, no Jötunn traits. Hopefully, that meant something.

He gulped again and slowly stepped back, lips tight, hands anxiously pressed together. Then, just as slowly, he turned. “Whose revenge did I steal?” he asked in a soft, tentative tone.

The blue woman stepped forward. “Mine,” she firmly answered.

Loki examined her. On another day, he might have laughed at the similar skin colours, maybe even spared a minute to try and figure out what she was; she didn't seem Kree, and she certainly wasn't like him, which left a host of curious options. There was no humour to be found this time, though. He let his brows fall, offering an uncanny warmth to his expression, and said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” she repeated in disbelief. “What did you need revenge for?”

“He killed my people.”

“He killed my sister!” she snapped.

“And my brother,” Loki calmly countered. “What's your point?”

She opened her mouth, quickly shut it, and then barrelled to the back of the crowd with an incoherent scream. He watched her pace for a moment before settling on the ground, defeated.

“He tortured you?” came the youngest voice. Loki frowned up at its source: the Midgardian boy from earlier. It sounded more like a statement than a question—a confirmation, rather. No, he didn't need to know. That it had slipped out changed nothing.

“I won't discuss that,” Loki responded, as politely as he could.

“Oh.”

“Hold up,” Tony barged in. “What the fuck? I thought you were dead. Wait—wait, you guys were with Thor.” He glanced at the strangers that had ambushed him. “And he said—”

“Yeah, and then he left!” one of them answered. “That was ages ago. Maybe—”

“No, no way. God, what the fuck! Peter, don't use that word.”

“Uh—”

“Okay, back up,” another said. “Who is this guy and did he just kill Thanos?”

“No, of course not!” Tony hissed. “Dude just had three tons of ice shoved in him and he's just gonna get right back up. What do you think?”

“Freaking out here,” Peter said.

“Oh my God, kid, shut up, I love you, but shut up. We're all freaking out.”

“I mean, it's not a really bad freak-out, but—”

“Would everyone stop?” Loki said, magically amplifying his voice; everyone immediately faced him. “Right, sorry if I got a little sadistic! What would you have done? Stark?”

“Wow, that's a really good question. Lemme think.” He gave a meaningful pause. “You know what? I kinda agree with you on this. What is this, like a—it's catharsis. Nah, that guy had it coming for a long time. Full support.”

“Yes, exactly! Thank you.”

“He seriously tortured you, though?” the same boy asked. “Jeez.”

Loki ignored the remark. “You're far too young to be here,” he said, taking another look at him.

“That's what I said!” Tony cried.

“I never should've gone to Nepal,” Strange muttered.

“Seriously?” Tony squinted in his general direction. “That's your biggest concern right now?”

Loki didn't listen to the rest.

He brought his hand to his forehead, rubbing off a layer of sweat that had formed, and cast his gaze on Thanos’s corpse. His eyes were open, blankly trained on the sky, and blood and water were rolling down him in droves, soundlessly dripping into the dirt—and that, combined with the gradually emptying holes in his arms and chest, the way he was on his knees with his head drawn back against a pole of ice, should have been more satisfying than anything to see. As Loki studied the sight, though…

There was nothing.

There was relief, that sense that he had done something great and important, and the knowledge that he was finished. Thanos was dead at his own hands; wasn't that what he had wanted? But there was nothing. He felt small and alone, trapped on a foreign planet with people he only trusted to kill him, and like he never should have left the ship in the first place—like he should have given up when he had the chance, as he had meant to, as he was going to. He'd never planned this far ahead.

Gods, no. Why was he like this?

He focused on his accomplishment, on Thanos, but as he stole another look at the darkened ground, he saw

(stone, more blood, his own blood, old stains on the unfinished surface, chains)

and promptly looked away and replaced his hand, pressing his forefinger and thumb to opposite temples and trying so goddamn desperately not to let the memories sweep away what little he had of his victory, but they came anyway. He saw the chains again, thick, ancient things similar to the cuffs, probably older than he was and none the lesser for it. They were enchanted, too, he noticed this time, bearing the same markings as the cuffs. Maybe that was why he felt weaker here than sprawled on the floors, maybe—

He remembered the cell. They left him there at night or when no one cared enough for torture, moved him sometimes when they released him before the start of every session—once a day, perhaps; he’d never know. A couple minutes to make sure the ally prisoner hadn’t died, let him relieve himself, and check if it worked—

if their method worked—

(it did, it worked, they saved you )

Loki stepped back, heart pounding. He couldn't breathe right; his throat felt like someone had stuffed it full of cotton wool. They were gone now, he tried to convince himself, he was fine, but he still remembered—not now, didn't want to—

He was dragged kicking to the chambers by his ankle, grunting as the floor's jagged surface ripped the scabs from his back. The walls smelled of mildew and the only light came through cracks in the stone, and the hallway felt as endless as the blood trailing behind him. He tried to fixate on his surroundings, tried to distract himself from the pain, but it never—

When they finally reached the room, he couldn't even struggle; he was easily hauled to his feet and bound by the cuffs on his wrists to one of the chains dangling from the ceiling. Though it killed him to do so, when his tormentor lifted a toothed knife to his chest, he grinned.

“What are you smiling for?” the man hissed, flicking Loki's cheek with the blade.

“You won't win,” he said with a wince. “None of you will.”

(still needs fixing)

No—

(the poison's still there, they'll get it out they'll—)

No no no, not this, not this; Loki knew what followed this memory. He sat down and tried blocking it out, but—

The man gripped him by the shoulder and held his chest taut while he dug the knife through his muscles. Loki sucked in a breath and tried not to scream as he jerked the blade up, peeling a layer of skin. Fresh sweat leaked into the wound and he twitched, tightened his hands around the chains—

“Remember your purpose,” the man said, anger and concern melding together in some distant, hazy way that felt wrong, impossible. Loki faced him again, teary-eyed as he repeated,

(purpose, glorious purpose, you're more than this, if only you'd join—)

“No,” he whispered, dizzily shaking his head. “I'm not. I'm not, let me go. You're wasting your time. You can't fix me. You can't win.”

The man dropped the knife and tore the skin loose, leaving a hot, bleeding mark down his pec. Loki screamed this time and tipped nearly to fainting, wished he would have—and then the pain turned into a violent, throbbing ache, and he closed his eyes and caught his breath. His lungs burned.

“You won't win,” he said again, forcing a bleak chuckle. He could taste salt in his mouth along the coppery sting of blood.

“They ruined you,” the man drawled. The knife at his fingers twirled in warning. “They poisoned your mind, Loki. It's all lies. We're—”

(only trying to help, no they're not they're not they just want you to join )

Loki shook his head and shakily responded, “Let me go. You're getting nowhere.”

( selfish little cunt )

The knife went into his shoulder and he let out another scream. The blade was intentionally dulled and might've even been treated with something to enhance the bite. He didn't know, and he didn't care. He kept laughing. He laughed until he cried. They'd give up eventually.

The image flickered.

Voices echoed around him, drawn dimly back into focus. Someone was calling his name. His chest still ached, felt like it was going to cave in any moment. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head, but the thoughts lingered; memories of the Bifröst rang through his mind, of a flourishing city brought to rubble at his hands, of a lifeless planet filled with his enemies—oh, Norns, no—

Then he felt arms around him, real arms, and the same voice—

“Loki!”

“Don't touch me!” he shrieked, scrambling backwards.

The grip moved to his shoulders. “Stop.”

“No! No, leave me alone.”

“I won't hurt you, Loki. Look at me. Deep breaths.”

He didn't attempt either. The voice sounded familiar enough; he knew it well, so very well, but he couldn't come up with the name or from where. All he could think about was the knife's edge ghosting at his skin, like an itch that needed to be scratched.

He shook his head and tried to escape the man's grasp.

“I'm an ally. We're allies now, Loki. I won't hurt you,” the man said again, pulling him into a full-body embrace; he didn't fight back this time. “You're not there anymore. Breathe. Look around. You're safe.”

“Thor,” Loki sobbed, squeezing his eyes shut. “I need to see him. He’s dead, isn’t he? He’s dead too. When he—oh, no. No. I did this to him. I did this to him, gods, I—”

“He's fine. He's fine, remember? There was a mix-up. Thor's alive. Don't worry. Don't worry, Loki. Just breathe. Deep breaths.”

Had he seen him in his Jötunn form?

“No,” Loki said, “please. Let me go. Let me go. Please.

“I'll take you to your brother, but I need you to calm down first. You’re hyperventilating. Look at me. Look at me, Loki. You're safe now. Deep breaths.”

I'm not stupid, he wanted to say. He knew that; the air just wasn't coming.

“Loki.” The grip tightened, and he trembled and buried his face in the man's shoulder. “I'll count if you need it, alright? One, two, three. Inhale, exhale. I can do longer if you want.”

The world seemed to shrink again, like he was dreaming. He was hardly even listening anymore.

“One, two, three, Loki. Come on. Can you do that?”

He swallowed and took a slow, shuddery breath, holding in time with the quiet counting by his ears. Inhale, one, two, three, exhale, one, two, three. Inhale. Exhale.

He didn't know how many times the numbers were repeated before the fear finally subsided and the name broke, even without looking. He lifted his head and stared in part humiliation, part disbelief, at Tony, who had unequipped his armour and still had his arms placidly wrapped around him. His mind failed to form any words.

“Hey,” Tony said, “you good?”

“Is Thanos dead?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he's dead. He's not”—Tony breathed in—“he's not coming back.”

“He's dead,” Loki mirrored. The tears returned to his eyes and he muttered a foreign swear under his breath. Tony frowned.

“Cry it out,” he said, shaking his head. “I don't care. Cry it out, Loki. Don't worry about me.”

There was no anger, no old grudges—just warm, plain sympathy. Then Loki sat up properly and growled, “Get your hands off me,” and the look in Tony’s eyes shot to a very real and barely hidden terror. He jerked away and watched, motionless, waiting for the situation to take a turn for the worse, but Loki only sighed. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Tony managed.

“And… sorry.”

“Wait—what? Why?”

“You know. For that. And this,” Loki added, his gaze drifting towards the crowd of startled heroes. “Look at how they're looking at me. I'm not welcome.”

“Whoa, wait a second, hold on.”

“No,” he continued, pushing himself to his feet with a wince. He brushed the loose dirt from his cape and gave Tony an emotionless, half-second smile. “I'm leaving. There's a planet I rather liked. I should be able to reach it on my own.”

“Okay, listen to me,” Tony hissed, spinning him around to face him. “Shut up and listen. You just saved half the universe, you realize that? I don't give one goddamn what you did before that. I can't, not right now. That'd be messed up. You're not moving until you understand that.”

Loki shot him a toxic look. “Fine,” he deadpanned, “do you have any chairs?”

“Oh, you've gotta be kidding me. Are you usually like this? Is this what Thor has to deal with?”

“You still haven't told me where he is!”

“I'm here.”

Loki froze.

At the front of the crowd was a portal forged by Strange, from which Thor and a small handful of people he did and didn't recognize had walked out. They bore tired, bloodied looks, and he reasoned that they'd fought Thanos's allies. Fought and won; they wouldn't be alive if they hadn't.

Thor carried an unfamiliar, blood-soaked weapon with him. He fastened to his back and closed the distance between them. Tony stepped away.

“Brother,” Loki said, slackening a little. “Hello.” Forget the Jötunn form—had he seen his panicking? “This is… not what I expected. I thought you perished with the ship.”

“I thought the same.”

He'd had a plan. He knew what he was doing and it involved faking his death and keeping it a secret from Thor, and it had worked so far—even better than anticipated. This was all according to plan. Or that was what he would tell him, anyway, because he still knew in the depths of his lying heart that there had never been a plan. He had gambled on pain, on his own wit and his age-old failsafe of fleeing when things got too dangerous, and won. That was all there was to it.

He didn't even consider it a win, to be honest.

“I had to,” he said. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Thor. I was scared.” That, at least, was true. “I needed to hide.”

“I forgive you, Loki.”

“I promised. I said I'd be back. I told you—”

“I know. I never stopped believing.” Thor forced a smile. “Not entirely.”

The victory still didn't feel like one. With that smile, though, the sheer look of love and relief on Thor's face, it certainly wasn't a loss; hell, with Thanos dead, it couldn't possibly be. It just was.

Loki teared up again and stumbled into his arms, the exertion catching up to him at once. Just the attack on the Statesman had worn him out. Add to that holding an illusion for so long, the warps, and using magic that had barely just recovered to end the fight—he didn't know how he was standing.

“I'm alright,” he muttered.

Thor snaked an arm around them, prompting a sigh and glare from Loki. “You need rest.”

“Rest? Where do I rest? There's nowhere left! There's—”

“The Avengers will take you in,” Thor calmly interrupted, and Loki gaped, unsure if he'd heard correctly.

“They will not,” he said, a hard certainty to his voice. “They—” He shook his head and peered at the crowd, wavering only at Tony, who was still standing awkwardly off to the side and in full sight of their discussion. His desperate attempts to calm him still rang in his thoughts. “They will not,” Loki repeated, turning away with a huff. “They'll lock me away and that'll be the end of it. Don't be stupid.”

Thor frowned and glanced at Tony. “Not after this,” he said, addressing him just as much as Loki. “They can't.”

Tony tipped his head in a kind of ambivalent agreement. He breathed in and considered their options, considered everything that had just happened, then simply offered, “Truce?”

Some of the Avengers protested, but most stayed silent. At least one of them nodded, which Loki caught in his periphery with a curious twitch of his brows—and then he keeled again, his body suddenly too hot, too heavy, and found himself grabbing Thor's shoulder. “Shit,” he hissed, staring past him. The sand brightened and he closed his eyes, clenched his jaw, trying and failing to ignore the growing static over his senses. He wasn't that tired; he couldn't be. He couldn't possibly have worn himself out so much.

“Loki,” Thor hesitantly began, securing his other arm to his waist, “do you need to—”

Lie down.

Lie down, probably.

He didn't hear the rest before the dizziness overtook him and the world cut.

 

Thor still had a firm hold on him when he fell and managed to keep him up, wincing a little at the weight. He waited a few seconds, hoping Loki would wake, but he remained limp. Only his steady breathing betrayed any sign of life.

“Adrenaline crash,” Tony noted, giving a tight, pained smile. “Must have really been exhausted, huh?”

Thor's response was a one-armed shrug and the same forced expression. He didn't bother speaking.

Behind them, Thanos was still tethered to the ground, hazily watching the sky. The ice had begun to blacken the surrounding areas in wide, mottled swathes, slower than if Loki had touched him outright, but a blackening nonetheless. When it finally melted, half of him would already be rotted; the other half wouldn't take long to follow.

It was almost poetic, leaving him here like this. They wouldn't be there to see the very end, but the thought was enough. Thanos would decay here, alone, on his home planet, and even if it wasn't torture, it was still a worthy enough demise for someone like him. Someday, his withered skeleton might even be found, and the story might have spread far enough by then that people would know that the universe punished those who went against it. The universe always won; sometimes, all it needed was a little push.

“What was that back there?” Peter asked, frowning up at Tony.

“Short answer? Flashback. I don't even know if I… handled it right. It worked, I guess, but—”

“He didn't want you to touch him.”

“Yeah.”

“It was my fault.”

Tony shook his head. “He was already close back there. I doubt it would have made a difference.”

“He'll be fine,” Thor said, and they turned to face him. He hoisted Loki up bridal-style and walked back to the crowd, away from the battle's grim finale. “You will not hurt my brother.” His voice had a rare, no-nonsense acidity to it, one that didn't soften as he continued, “Do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” Tony quickly answered. He wouldn't wait up on the rest of them.

With that, they made their way to the still-standing portal. Thor and Loki were first, followed by Tony, Peter, those who had fought in Wakanda, and—reluctantly—the mistaken ambushers, who probably had better places to be and couldn't really bring themselves to trust the Avengers, but joined them anyway. Last of all was Strange, who took a moment to send the gauntlet to a safe storage and then walked after them, closing the portal behind him.

No one looked back.

 

Chapter Text

Loki snapped awake to a white ceiling. His mouth was dry and his head was throbbing, and for a very long several seconds, he didn't understand where he was. The last place he'd slept was the ship, and then—

White ceiling.

Panic surged through him and he jolted upright, only to see a regular, medium-sized room. No bars, no barriers—just a room. A bedroom, and a relatively nice one at that. He looked down at himself, searching for cuffs, wards, anything, but found nothing. In fact, he was as untouched as could be; he was still wearing his armour down to the boots and cape, and faded blood lined the grooves of his fingers. He'd simply been lain there atop the covers and left to sleep.

Nothing on him, nothing around the room. He double-checked, saw no apparent danger, and then forced himself to relax, choking his fear down like it was a bad aftertaste. No danger; Thor had promised.

(Well, he lied sometimes. Never mind that.)

The room was sparsely decorated and open in its design. To his right was a kitchenette with a round dining table and two chairs, a bathroom, and a presumably empty dresser by the latter's door. To his left was a small nightstand and the door to leave, which faced the same direction as the bed, and a couch nestled in the far corner. The wall directly opposite him was mostly window and kept shooting beams of light into his face between bouts of clouds, which he probably wouldn’t have minded some other day. This time, though, all it did was worsen his headache, so he quickly looked away.

That second glimpse at the nightstand revealed a handwritten note that read, Breakfast in the lounge! T.S. Loki stayed on the text for a few seconds, considering his options. He wasn't particularly hungry, nor did he want to face any of them—certainly not Tony. Not after their encounter on Titan.

But forget about him.

There was still that uncertainty and distrust and fear regarding the Avengers, and if it was that strong now, he didn't want to find out how he would feel when he was actually in a room with everyone. They were never supposed to know he was even alive, but the universe was such that plans like those rarely worked out—and after all, it had landed him his revenge with Thanos, hadn't it? And of course, of course, he had decided that he would deal with the consequences later. To that extent, he was exactly as upset as he'd expected; he knew the risks he was taking in not running and he knew how difficult they'd be in the morning. Norns help him, he'd say, but the words would be as empty as they always were. This was his blunder to shoulder.

He crawled off the bed and warped his plates and cape into storage, then headed into the bathroom, figuring he ought to at least tidy himself up beforehand.

His reflection wasn't nearly as awful as expected, but he didn't quite look flawless, either. The hair he’d slept on creased at an odd angle and he had specks of dried blood on his cheek, and a new scar made its home above his eyebrow. Other than that, there wasn't much. He glanced at the sink, at the taps, and then picked the blood off with a fingernail. His hair might have gone easier if he dampened it, but he didn't bother with that, either. He formed a comb and drew the locks back with a little more effort than usual, tucking them just as neatly behind his ears and taking an extra minute or so to make sure the dirt and tangles were out.

There were still some stray curls and flyaways when he set the comb down, but there was nothing to be done about them. Natural hair supposedly suited him, anyway.

He left the room and all but crept through the hall, stepping too lightly and too carefully past the other doors. The walls eventually opened to a sprawling area with tables and chairs and yes, its own kitchen. Several Avengers had already settled in, as had some of the strangers from Titan. Thor and Tony had claim over one of the two couches by the kitchen; they were all Loki took note of.

No one saw him walk in, it seemed. He sat in the opposite end, leaving about a person's space between him and Thor, and tried, “Good morning.”

Thor looked up. “Good morning,” he said after a moment. “How are you feeling?”

“Better. What are we having?”

“Eggs, sausages, and waffles,” Tony answered through mouthfuls, “courtesy of Cap. Highly recommended.”

“Oh—I can't actually have wheat,” Loki admitted, glancing at him. “But thank you.”

Tony shrugged and chanced a grin. “More for me, then,” he said, then returned to eating.

It was a thoroughly unconvincing gesture on his part; his eyes were practically glazed with hidden panic and the rest of him came off similarly high-strung, tight like he aimed to flee at the drop of a hat. Their discomfort was mutual, by the looks of it. Nothing surprising. Nothing, Loki also decided, either of them was especially keen on discussing, so he smiled back and then leaned in to grab a plate and cutlery from the coffee table. He piled on a few sausages, wondering if maybe he could stomach a waffle after all, and got to work slicing them into bites.

The conversations behind them carried on, thankfully, but the silence between them dragged. He didn't know what to say to Thor and he definitely didn't know what to say to Tony. He wasn't sure if they felt the same.

It was almost a minute before Tony suddenly sighed and began, “Thor says you’re good now?”

How was he supposed to answer to that? “That's a very broad statement,” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“Don’t be a smartass.”

Thor remained quiet, looking like he very much regretted his choice of seating. He sank farther into the backrest and continued picking at his food.

“Well,” Loki said, “I’m not trying to take over planets anymore, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m just as good as everyone else in this room—that is, I’m not the best I could be, but I wouldn’t call myself a villain. So yes, Stark, I’m good now.”

“You've killed a lot of people.”

“So have you. The weapons you once manufactured killed thousands of civilians daily, didn't they? What's in the past is in the past.”

Tony didn't respond.

“I have to agree with my brother,” Thor said. “Loki's done more than enough over the years to prove himself.”

“Prove what?” Steve hissed from the kitchen. “There's nothing to prove. Did you forget what happened here?”

The room stilled at that. Loki pretended not to notice the spike in his heart rate and started eating.

“We'd be dead if he hadn't shown up,” Tony said, his voice hard. “And did you forget what happened between us?”

“That's not the same,” Steve said. “He—”

“Stop. Stop, okay? We're not having this discussion right now.”

“So you're telling me you're comfortable around him.”

“We're not having this discussion,” Tony said again, although something in the words audibly faltered this time. Loki pretended not to notice that, too.

“He's a war criminal,” Steve said.

“Did you hear me?”

“He’s acquitted,” Thor shot.

“Hey—”

“You can’t do that!” Steve cried.

“Hey,” Tony growled, “I said stop. And don't quote me on this, also, but I think he can. He's a king, isn't he? He's got all the authority.”

Steve took a moment. “Loki’s acquitted,” he said, matching Tony's glare. “Alright. In Asgard, maybe. That means nothing here.”

“Can't it?”

“In what way?”

“I don’t know.” Tony shrugged again. “I read something somewhere once.”

“So you’re clueless.”

“You’re just as clueless as I am, sweetheart. Why don’t you get a lawyer in here so we can actually get something done?”

Steve held the glare for another second before he looked at the bowl of half-finished batter, set the ingredients down, and walked out without a word.

“I think you offended him,” Loki said, watching him disappear.

“Yeah, I know,” Tony muttered. He sighed. “Rest in peace, waffle mix. This morning to this morning.”

Loki snickered and popped the last bit of sausage in his mouth. “I never asked if anyone needs healing.”

“Uh…” Tony absentmindedly scanned the room. “I think we’re good.”

“What about”—Loki hesitated—“Peter? That is his name, right?”

“Yeah. He stayed the night. He’s pretty shaken up after seeing, uh, what you did to Thanos. I'd give him some space.”

“I can help him.”

“Help him?” Tony snapped; Loki stifled a flinch. “How? It's your fault he's like this in the first place.”

“Trust me.”

“Trust you,” Tony flatly repeated. He looked at Thor, who only nodded as if to confirm Loki's remark, and sighed. “Okay,” he said, the sharpness in his tone dissipating somewhat. “Just… be careful. Don't do anything stupid.”

“Come with me if it'll ease your mind,” Loki said, standing. “Thor knows, though: I'm many things, but I'm not one to willingly hurt a child. Where is his room?”

Tony hooked a thumb towards the dorms. “Third door on the left. Loki, I'm serious, if you do anything—”

“You'll kill me,” he filled in with a smile. “I know.”

Loki headed back down the hall, conscious of Tony's gaze trailing after him, and stopped at the third door. He knocked and waited for an answer. None came.

“Peter?” he asked. “May I come in?”

Peter mumbled an affirmative, his voice muffled by what was likely a pillow. Loki frowned and opened the door. He walked in on him lying face-down in bed, as guessed, sheets crumpled around his feet and headphones over one ear.

“Hi,” Peter said, turning his head slightly. “Loki, right?”

Loki nodded and sat next to him. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Stark tells me otherwise.”

“He's just worrying.” Peter sat up and tugged his headphones off. “I'm fine, really.”

“You know,” Loki said, “one of the things I'm god of is lies. Hiding truths from me is very difficult.”

“Oh, um… alright. I've never really seen anyone die like that,” Peter quietly admitted. “It's nothing. I mean, I've seen other pretty messed up stuff. It's just…”

“Overwhelming?” Loki suggested.

“Yeah.”

“I get it. You're young, and sights like those aren't nearly as common here as they are on Asgard, anyway. I'm sorry you had to see. It was something I needed to do.”

“It's okay.”

“No, I know it affected you. I was going to ask if you'll allow me to help.”

“Help?”

“I can erase your memories of the battle. Or we could just talk about it, if you want. I think the former will be easier on you, but I'd like some permission for that. I need to find them first and not everyone appreciates people digging around in their mind.”

“Yeah, of course. Go for it.”

Loki scooted closer and pressed a hand to Peter's forehead. “Keep your thoughts clear and don't panic. I'll try to be quick.”

The most recent entries were at the front; the two of them on the bed, and then Peter waking up, and then his following Strange's portal to the Avengers base. Tony. Loki almost wanted to remove that, but it wasn't what he promised. He skipped to the last cut of him and Thanos and made a mark of it in the spell, then went further, right to where the gauntlet had been retrieved. He marked that, too, and then called a weak surge of magic between the memories.

“What do you remember?” he asked, withdrawing his hand.

“Um…” Peter closed his eyes. “Nothing, wow. Thanks a ton.”

Loki smiled and stood. Peter left his things and followed him back to the lounge, where everyone as wrapped up in food and conversation as before—except for Tony. He looked at them both as they walked in, brows scrunched, and asked, “What did you do?”

“I made him forget what he saw,” Loki said.

“You made him—you can do that?”

“Simple memories, yes. Those that get left too long branch out too much to be dealt with easily.”

Something almost akin to disappointment flitted across Tony's face, and Loki gave a dim, dry smile as he realized they'd been thinking the same thing. He wondered if Peter had considered it as well. Looking over showed him focused only on scrounging for remaining waffles, but he couldn’t sense malice; more likely, it was just distraction.

Tony joined Peter in the kitchen, apparently assuming the responsibility of finishing the batter, and Loki sighed. He returned to where Thor was sitting and propped himself up against the armrest. “I met some Asgardians yesterday,” he said, leaning in. “I thought you might be interested. Most of them retreated here after the attack, and from what I can tell, they landed on the same continent, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them. Especially with the Avengers on your side,” he added after a second.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Thor said. “You should join.”

“Join what?”

“The Avengers.”

Loki just about choked. “You’ve gone mad.”

“Have I?” Thor smiled weakly. “No. I want you back at my side again. Fights just aren’t the same without you, brother.”

And they really weren't; recent time together had shown them both just how much they'd missed sharing a battlefield. What could be done about that, though?

He looked at Tony, but he was too busy muttering ratios to have heard. He didn't know if that was good or bad.

“I'll think about it,” Loki finally said, managing a smile of his own. Then he turned and left.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes, from the time Loki woke up that morning to now, was all it took for the panic to set in. He was still so afraid of everyone, of what they might do to him—and then there were the memories. There was guilt mixed in the thoughts, the sense that he was weak and so very unlike himself, and combined with the fear, it would have been all he could do to simply curl up somewhere and scream. Gods knew he felt like it.

Blue sky, bright sun. Cars and a cool breeze. Flat, stone roofing at his feet. The smell of something baking. There was nothing to remind him—nothing to ignore. He brought his knees closer to his chest and breathed in, breathed out: one, two, three, four. Part of the counting was his own lifelong discipline, unaware of yesterday; the other part was almost audible in Tony's voice. He tried not to acknowledge the latter.

He wasn't there anymore, he knew, and he silently repeated it between the numbers. Not that it mattered; panic like that didn't care much for logic. It never hurt to try, though. Something pricked in his chest and he tightened his grip around his legs, holding them against himself like they might keep the pain out, and thought about—

The Avengers. That was a productive topic to muse. He needed to decide what his plans were and fast, because his discomfort, and theirs, would only get worse as the days went by. What he really needed was a way back to that tavern at the edge of space—

Except he couldn't even think about that before he was stuck on the memories again, riding them out as best as he could and hoping they wouldn't be anything more than that. One, two, three, four.

The first time he gave in. The exact moment was a blank, but he knew it came quick; in one instant, he was stubborn as always, vehemently turning down each word shot his way, and in the next—

“You're right,” he said, softly, gratingly. He coughed and continued, “Let me rest. Please.”

The pain didn't stop; the fire in his body continued long after the knife was pulled away from his skin, throbbing to the beat of his heart. He clenched his jaw and began to sob, staring blurry-eyed at the pools of blood on the floor and not caring who saw, not now. His lungs burned. He couldn't breathe.

“You're right,” he repeated, childish desperation in his voice. It was so vague that he didn't even know what he had been answering; something about serving, how he'd be stronger with them—didn't matter. “You're right. Just let me rest awhile.”

They did, but it didn't take long for them to pick up again. His answer then was a fluke, something he'd said in the moment to stave away the hurt, and it was hard to maintain a lie like that, even for him. They noticed.

A siren somewhere shook the image.

What was that about joining the Avengers?

Loki sighed. He formed a blank sheet of paper in one hand, and in the other, a black quill pen; a layer of magic underneath allowed him to write without a solid surface. Between thinking of what to say, he thought of fields, music, anything to fight the memories, and for a second or two, it worked—and then the next scene. How much had passed from since the previous one, he didn't know. Soon after was the best guess.

“Give me an army,” he had said, his words as confident now as they had been pleading.

Thanos chuckled, a low, mocking sound. He eyed Loki's broken form, knelt in front of the chains that still bore his sweat and blood, and smiled. “Of course. You're strong”—(yes)—“but even you can't take them on your own. We'll give you a weapon, too.”

( kill him )

Loki smiled back, feeling a bloody chip form along the bottom of his lips as he did. “That'll be useful,” he quietly replied, licking the drop away. “Thank you.”

( kill him kill him kill him )

“What are you planning, Silvertongue?”

He blinked, startled. “I'm not planning anything. I'll help you. But I suppose I could—while I'm down there, I want to make my family pay.”

“Your family,” Thanos repeated, nodding. “Of course. They hurt you. It's only right.”

What goes around comes around, Loki thought, and even now, he wasn't sure who he had meant it towards. Hindsight told him the idiom's recipient had been Thanos, but here, then, they were allies. The empty advice in his mind was just that: empty. Kill him? He couldn't possibly.

“Revenge,” Loki said, matching the nod with another uneasy smile. “You understand. It's no extra trouble. I might just take a little longer.”

“Take all the time you need. But remember—”

(they'll punish you if you fuck up, of course, mistakes have consequences it's okay it's—)

Too far. The pen fell into his lap with a muted thud and he sighed and picked it up, rolling it in his palm as he tried to recollect himself. He let the paper float to his side, suspended by the magic, and peered over the edge of the building. Even in the face of the natural sights he favoured, he always found cityscapes so oddly beautiful; this, balanced on a rooftop somewhere just minutes from the Avengers' base, was the kind of sight he loved—same as the stars, same as everything else that had been all but ruined by his own restless mind. He focused on that good, on the numbers still ticking away in the recesses of his thoughts, and called the paper vertically in front of him. Slowly, he began to write.

Stark,

Unless he's told you already, I thought you should know that Thor wants me to join the Avengers. We can probably agree that my powers would be of great use, but I know that Earth has some very strong feelings about me, and I doubt it's a good idea.

Where was he going with this?

I’ll say it now: I never wanted what happened in New York.

(liar)

No, he wasn't quite lying. He had adored the attention, the chaos he had caused, but he hadn't wanted all the death that rose from it. Still—

He hadn't hesitated.

He frowned and continued writing, his fingers so firm around the pen they were red.

That year destroyed me and it was your people who suffered for it. I could write forever and it still wouldn't amount to how sorry I am, so I'll leave it there. Hopefully, you'll accept it.

This particular letter is enchanted; respond in the space I’ve left below and then push it aside. It will find its way to me.

Kindest regards,

Loki

Clear and concise; he didn't need more. He added the aforementioned spell, then sent the pen and paper away with a wave of his hand and stood, catching another glimpse of the streets as he did. It wasn't the tallest building he was on, but the view was still tempting dizzying. Reluctantly, he turned and descended via the fire escape, phasing into invisibility just before he was within anyone's sight. He found a bench along the curb and waited there for a reply.

Ten minutes passed with ease. He watched the traffic, looked behind him occasionally at the civilians—dogs in particular, who he swore detected his presence—and mostly succeeded in keeping his thoughts at bay. The letter reappeared just shy of the twelfth minute, drifting into his lap with a shimmer of green. He picked it up and read the text.

Loki,

I don't trust you. Even after what you did for us, I don't think I'll be able to trust you again for a long time. That said, you seem alright. Come by HQ and we'll talk.

T.S.

The pit in his stomach lifted before he even knew it was there. He sent the letter into storage and took a deep breath, then stood. If Tony wanted him dead, he would have done so on Titan; he wasn't so dumb that he would wait for him to regain his strength first. This was a peaceful meeting—nothing more, nothing less. They were only here to talk. No attacks, no tricks. Just a talk. The truce was still on, anyway, and someone like Tony wouldn't break a truce.

Loki sighed and started walking.

 

The main doors were locked when he arrived, not entirely to his surprise. He slid out of invisibility and tapped the buzzer. After what seemed like an eternity, the intercom switched on.

“Thought you'd left for good,” Steve said, and Loki rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”

“Stark wanted to see me.”

“Him? I really doubt it.”

“This is his handwriting.” Loki summoned the letter and held it up to the camera. “Or ask him if you don't believe me.”

A few seconds went by in silence. Past twenty, Loki wondered if he'd actually gone to confirm the claim. It was almost exactly a minute later that the faint click of a lock echoed from the doors. The letter vanished in his hand and he entered the building.

The lobby was abandoned for the most part, with only Tony to fill it. He rounded the corner just as Loki came in. “Sorry,” he said, tucking his phone in his pocket. He grinned. “An Avenger, huh?”

“Thor's idea, not mine.”

“Yeah, I gathered. We can… talk about it.”

Loki shrugged.

Tony turned and disappeared down the hall. Loki followed. They settled in the lounge, where he sat in one of the couches and watched as Tony returned to a brewing pot of coffee.

“Where is everyone?” Loki asked.

“Out,” Tony said. “Most of them went to help with Thor's search-and-rescue mission. Speaking of which—shouldn't you be with him too? They're your people, after all.”

“Maybe so. I'm just…” Loki frowned. Just what? “I'm still a little tired.”

“Yeah, yesterday must've been rough. Thor told me some of it. I just didn't understand, uh—” Tony's brows bunched in thought. “How'd you all end up on a ship?”

“Ragnarök,” Loki answered, smooth as if he'd rehearsed it. “It's a long story. We lost Asgard and that ship was a temporary solution.”

“And then you faked your death.”

“I did. That's why—” Loki cleared his throat. “That's why I apologized on Titan. It wasn't the first time, but it was… one of the more graphic cases. It took a lot out of me. I can’t remember the last time I exhausted my magic like that.”

“But you’re healing pretty well,” Tony noted, glancing at him.

“Oh, no doubt. Last night's rest fixed most of it, luckily. I should be fine by tomorrow.”

“That’s good.” Tony paused. “How do you take your coffee?”

“Copious sugar and no dairy. If you've got any substitutes, that works.”

“So no dairy,” Tony said, opening the fridge, “and no wheat.” He grabbed a carton of unsweetened cashew milk and closed the door. “That doesn't sound fun. Where did that come from, you think?”

An imperfect glamour betraying his biology, probably. That was the best explanation Loki had these days; given all he knew, it made sense. He sighed. “My ancestors never really ate either,” he explained, “so I suppose we just didn't develop the tolerance.”

“That seems about right,” Tony said, nodding. He unscrewed the cap and poured a small measure into one of the mugs. “Is it all wheat or just the gluten?”

Loki considered it. “Both,” he said. “Too much of most grains will make me sick, actually, but gluten does worsen it. Why?”

“Just wondering.” Tony replaced the milk and carried the mugs to where Loki was sitting. He handed him his coffee, sat about a cushion's space away, and placed his own on the table to cool. “So here's my take,” he said, resting his arms in his lap. “What you did, um—what was it, five years? What you did five years ago royally fucked me up and continues to affect me today, but I owe you. We all do. So, I'm willing to give you a chance. One chance,” he clarified, raising a finger.

“That's reasonable,” Loki said.

“Sure it is. Can I trust you, though?”

“Never. Here's a better question: can I trust you?

That caught Tony off guard. He looked at the table, back at Loki, and said, “You can't. Same way I can't trust you, I guess. I could say I won't try anything, but you won't believe me, will you?”

Loki shook his head.

“And that's how I feel, too,” Tony went on, a bitter smile on his face. “We're us and it's just…”

“Difficult,” Loki finished. “I know. Just don't try to kill me and I won't try to kill you. That's all there is to it.”

They didn't speak further.

Loki took the time to start drinking, the cold milk having chilled the coffee enough by then. Tony just waited. He didn't even bother blowing; he only watched, eyeing the mug on the table like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Loki, if he wanted to, could have cooled it—just a little, just so it was potable. The dialogue was even there: would you like me to cool that? (Yes, please, thank you.) After some slight deliberation, though, he simply leaned back and kept sipping at his own. Too much effort, not enough worth.

If that morning's silence had been bad, then this was hell. His heart rate was up again and he couldn't help but notice Tony glancing at him every few seconds, eyes rather indiscreetly locked on his face. Maybe he was observing the changes. Last they saw of each other, and Loki knew this only because of the few glints he caught in a reflection, he was half a shade past his normal pallor, dark-eyed, thin, and his hair hadn’t been washed nearly since Thanos found him—not to mention he was still struggling to accustom to the new length. He hadn’t slept decently in months and had gone through the whole event in a haze, although that part likely wasn't as obvious behind the constant snark. Thor would’ve, should’ve said something. But he didn’t. He didn’t even seem worried.

“You look better,” Tony said.

“Better than yesterday,” Loki asked, “or better than New York?”

“New York.”

So he did see the difference, after all. “Well, I feel better,” Loki said. “Those days were…” He trailed off, unsure how to end the sentence. “Do you still think about it?”

“Sometimes,” Tony answered. “Not as much as I used to.”

“You know I’d help you if I could,” Loki said, brows dropping a little.

“You wouldn’t.”

“No, I would. I’m not a bad person, Stark. I live for myself first and foremost and it’s led me to do bad things, but I'm good at heart.” Loki smiled. “Thor can tell you that.”

Tony frowned and uncertainly lifted the mug. “Do you even want to be an Avenger?”

“Not particularly,” Loki admitted. “But I've got nothing better to do and I don't need him moping all day, so here I am.”

“Here you are,” Tony mirrored, gesturing towards him with his free hand. “You know, my biggest concern right now isn't if I can trust you. For the record, I still don't, but anyway, my biggest concern is how the public will react. Wait—that sounds super pretentious, sorry.”

“No, I understand.”

“Right, so I just don't know what people will think if the Avengers suddenly get you on the team. I mean, Earth doesn't exactly have the best memories of you.”

“If it doesn't work out, I can always leave. Like I said earlier, there's a planet I rather liked. I can find it again if it comes to that.”

“Well, jeez. I don't want to just kick you out. Thor would skin me alive.”

“Oh, he wouldn't do that,” Loki said with a grin, “but he might throw a few punches. Nothing you can't handle, I'm sure.”

Tony cautiously tipped the mug back. “Is this what you're usually like?” he asked as he lowered it.

“What do you mean?”

“You're calm. Making jokes. Not trying to kill anyone,” Tony added after a moment.

“You say that like it's my pastime.”

Tony snorted. “It's not?”

“No,” Loki said, fighting a snicker, “it's not.”

“Then what is?”

“You're asking what I do in my free time? Why, if I didn't know you any better”—Loki's grin widened—“I'd say you're flirting with me.”

“What—no!” Tony stammered, face red. “Loki, you ass. You led me into that!”

Loki doubled in his seat, the laughter hitting him at full strength. The mug was empty by then, so nothing spilled, but he still set it aside—and then he kept laughing, holding the giggles for a good several seconds before he finally stopped. Tony only glared.

“God of mischief,” Loki warmly reminded.

“Right.” Tony sighed and drank the rest of his coffee. “Well, I don't know about you, but I'm gonna go look for some stranded Asgardians. Are you…?”

“Coming? I might as well.”

“I just—” Tony stopped, mouth open, and squinted. “You… might attract some unwanted attention out here.”

“I've been out with no issues before. I can disguise myself if it'll help,” Loki added, changing into black slacks and a collared shirt in one swift motion. “Honestly, though, I think you'll distract enough from me that it won't matter either way.”

“You're probably right,” Tony said, standing. “Still.” He took the mugs and deposited them in the dishwasher. “Stay close and don't do anything too crazy. I don't want riots.”

Loki shrugged and made his way downstairs. Tony followed.

They left through the main entrance, with Tony drawing his suit (minus the headpiece) just as the doors closed. Loki stayed in front of them for a few seconds, gauging his magic, and chanced a single teleportation charge in the back of his mind.

“We can walk,” Tony said, looking questioningly at him.

“No, this is fine.” Loki winked and neared the spell. “I have my methods.”

“You're sure?”

Loki sent a glitter of green through his irises.

“Ah. Point taken.”

Tony formed the rest of the suit and flew off. Loki trailed behind him at ground level with loose, mid-range warps. They came easy this time, smooth and less draining than they were yesterday; the weary lack of focus had called for greater effort.

It took half a minute to reach the city limits. They met up at the first major street and began searching.

 

Chapter Text

Tony and Loki's search didn't last very long before they both ended up against a wall somewhere downtown, with Tony out of his armour and basking in all the attention and Loki, as expected, passing entirely unnoticed next to him. “Do you have the count yet?” he asked, looking over.

“Nope,” Tony said. He stuffed his phone in his jacket and muttered a curse. “No one knows anything.”

Loki frowned and returned to his spell: a type of tracker. He filled his eyes with fresh magic, tinting them a faint green as he did, and glossed over the jumbles of people. The spell revealed a handful of weak, meandering lights between the non-targets, but nothing bright enough to be traced. Expected results, anyway; he sighed. “This is terribly inefficient,” he said.

“You don’t say,” Tony responded, glancing at him from behind a pair of rosy sunglasses. “Do you have a better idea?”

Loki shrugged. He stepped into an entryway and surreptitiously warped onto that building's roof, which offered some three storeys of improvement, max. They weren't much, but they helped, at least in picking apart the streams of energy. He clambered up the pitch and craned his neck, checking for outliers in any, all directions. It was pointless for the most part, he knew. Still, it never hurt to try.

He spent a good minute perched on the edge before he sighed again and reappeared at Tony's right—far too suddenly, based on the height of his jump. Loki smiled. “Sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“So why can't you search from the air?”

“Because my dumb ass never bothered figuring out how to automatically separate Asgardians from humans. Or… manually, for that matter.”

“Don't worry about it. Even I can't make a visual distinction most of the time.” Loki paused, distractedly looking at a trolleybus as it curved onto another street. “I have an idea, but I'm not sure you'll like it. Or if it'll work.”

“Try me.”

“You're capable of criteria-based scans, right? You just don't have enough information for something like this.”

“Yeah, basically. I've filled in info on the fly, but only with obvious traits. I'd get way too many false positives otherwise.”

“And I can't just describe the physiology to you?”

“You could. It would take ages to work into the tech, though.” Tony stopped and eyed him curiously. “Can't I just base the scan on you?”

No. No, he couldn't. Imperfect glamour.

Loki cleared his throat and looked out at the street once more. “You can't,” he said, gently thumbing the knuckles on one hand. “There are too many subtleties. One person can't account for the rest of the race.”

“Well, yeah. I was thinking I'd extrapolate from that. Not worth it?”

“Perhaps. Let me get to my idea.” Loki switched hands. “I know the details by heart. I could fill in the criteria using magic, variations included. I’ve worked with machines before, so it should be possible.”

“You're right,” Tony said. “I don't like that.”

“Why not?”

“Uh, I'm kind of particular about people messing with my stuff. Especially you. No offence.”

“None taken.” Loki clasped his hands at his waist. “I suppose we'll just spend the next century here, then. That doesn't sound too bad. Maybe you can rent me a brothel while we're at it.”

Tony whipped around to look at him, his face scrunched in morbid, exaggerated disgust.

“What? I have needs.”

“You,” Tony said, “are utterly gross.”

Loki snickered. “You're one to talk.”

“Okay, no, I don't want to hear about this. Stop tainting my innocent ears with your sin, Loki.”

His snicker gave way to full-on laughter. Tony rolled his eyes and went back to texting various Avengers and not-so-Avengers, unamused.

The mistrust was an issue, Loki decided as he composed himself. By then, it was clear they'd both decided to ignore yesterday's events, and it was relieving, no doubt; he wasn't being patronized, for one, which would have been murder to his pride. What it was, though, was a missed shot at that lack of faith. Take away those episodes and he was dangerous as ever, but while they were still there, he probably couldn't harm someone if he wanted to, lest he be reduced to a bawling mess on the ground. Not trusting someone in that state was just cruel.

Loki didn't say that, of course, because at the end of the day, he still preferred being mistrusted to being patronized. He started a transmitting spell, taking the time to adjust its recipients to those whose energies matched Æsir patterns, and then quietly explained the situation aloud: Asgard, their plans to reunite everyone, and his and Tony's current location, just in case. A flick of his wrist sent the message across the city.

“You couldn't have done that earlier?” Tony asked, looking up from his phone.

“Sure,” Loki said, “but I needed to get a feel for the people here first. It's not especially easy picking out targets in a place like this.”

“You can't skip that part?”

“Please. Have you seen the way humans react to magic? My voice suddenly appearing in every head in the city would cause mass hysteria.”

“I thought you were into that.”

“Sometimes. Not now.”

Tony raised an eyebrow, then continued typing.

Loki kept his mind open as the spell worked on the odd chance that someone wanted to respond, but for the next minutes, all he could hear was the roar of traffic, some incredibly catchy music nearby, and at least a dozen people successfully asking Tony for an autograph. He pretended not to notice the latter.

“You know what I could try,” he began, “is lend my magic directly to your vision, and then you wouldn’t need any modifications to your armour. Not that you would let me. But I could do that.”

“Definitely not,” Tony said.

“So you’re just going to keep standing there and doing nothing, are you?” Loki sneered. “Solid plan, Stark. You’re bound to find something.”

“What do you want me to do? I don't even know what I'm looking for.”

“I gave you ideas. Are you even listening?”

“Yes, and I don't trust you!” Tony snapped—and then he stopped, looking like he hadn't quite meant to let it out so harshly, and slowly exhaled. “We went over this,” he said. “I'm sorry. I don't trust you enough. I mean—I still see you in my nightmares sometimes, Lokes. I'm working on it and I'm sorry. Bear with me.”

“Don't apologize,” Loki said. “You have every right to feel that way.”

“I really am trying, though. You seem like a cool guy and I can tell you've changed for the better. It just takes time.”

Loki nodded. “Take all the time you need. And… thank you, I think.”

A prolonged honk blared across the street. Loki winced.

“What if we get Thor and he just makes sure you don't do anything weird?” Tony asked.

“Like what?” Loki said, breathing a chuckle. “Turn you into a frog?”

“Uh, yeah, that counts as pretty weird. But we can do that, right? I'll probably be okay with it then—whatever you want to do.”

“That's… fine.” Loki sighed. “Actually, it's tremendously degrading that you'd need my brother to supervise, but like I said, I don't blame you.”

Tony went silent then, and Loki wondered for a moment what he was thinking. He swore he saw pity in his eyes, felt it a little through his empathy, but he pushed the idea away. He didn't want pity. It was awful enough that Tony had seen him when—

“So we head back, is that it?”

“Evidently,” Loki said.

“Alright.” Tony stuck the glasses somewhere in his pocket and drew his suit; Loki, a single, long-distance warp. Neither of them paid any heed to the fascinated onlookers as they left.

 

Loki arrived some few minutes earlier by virtue of instantaneous travel, and he padded upstairs to the lounge while waiting for Tony. As far as reaching Thor, he considered penning, but it probably wasn't worth the effort. So, he simply waited—fixed his hair, fixed his armour's hiking up underneath his glamour, and waited.

Thor's lack of phone meant Tony had to call someone who called someone else, who in turn called someone else, and on and on, until the message had finally been routed. Once they contacted him, though, he arrived at a speed nearly on par with Loki's and joined them both in the lounge.

Thor hadn't found anyone either, as it happened. He was cautious of the plan but seemed more than fond of allowing Loki an attempt. Tony, meanwhile, seemed to be fighting another panic attack—tight expression, unnaturally controlled breathing. Loki almost expected him to cancel when Peter, who was snacking in the other end of the room, made his presence more than known; that was apparently enough of a reassurance. (Or maybe Tony just didn't want to upset the kid and his growing love for him, Loki mused; either or.)

It was still with some reluctance that Tony permitted him to enter his lab, but the glazed look in his eyes was gone, thankfully. Modify the armour, they decided—longer-lasting and far more efficient.

“I can't believe you're okay with this, though,” Tony said, pulling up a chair.

“Why wouldn't I be?” Thor responded.

“He's… uh… Loki.”

“Yes, that's his name.”

The aforementioned laughed and said, “Jokes aside, I don't have much to gain from anything of ill intent. All it'll do is delay the rescues.”

“Fair enough,” Tony said. “So how's this going to work?” He pointed to his chest.

Loki shrugged.

“Do you need it all out, or?”

“This is fine,” Loki said, and he paused, trying to gauge Tony's reaction, before carefully placing his hand over the glowing device latched to his shirt. “I can read whatever's there as it is right now.”

Tony nodded tensely.

Loki closed his eyes and let the mechanisms' inner workings fill his mind, outlined in all their endless detail by a dose of magic. The nanotech struck him as incredible, and the weapons, and every interwoven system lining them; most of it was far too complex for someone of his persuasion, but he couldn't help but marvel. He had a very scant idea of what he was looking for: visual circuits and whatever else was used in picking out objects. Whenever it showed, he'd recognize it; he knew that much. He dug deeper, deeper—and then that something caught his mind's eye and he zoomed in, realized with a grin that he'd located just those, audiovisual and the scattered bits of the program's interface. After double-checking he had the right string of code, he bade another ounce of magic to compile all he knew about Æsir into a set of preset search criteria, made sure the data was clean, and then removed his hand.

“That should work,” he said, lips pursed uncertainly. “Try it out.”

“On who?” Tony asked.

Oh.

Loki hesitated for a long several seconds, hyper-conscious of Thor's attention on him, before saying, “On us.”

Tony seemed ready to further probe, but he refrained. He stood and formed the Iron Man, waited a moment for everything to load, and then said, “Okay, testing… whatever just got added.”

Another moment passed.

“Anything?” Loki said.

Tony called back the armour. “It works,” he said, grinning.

Loki gave him a smile of his own. “I told you.”

“Yeah, yeah. So, we're good?”

“I'd like to think so. Thor?”

“Unless you've rigged something—”

“I haven't. Please, brother. What do I look like?”

“God of mischief.” Thor winked. “Maybe you'd have had it turn green.”

Loki reeled, a fierce blush setting his entire face afire. “Absolutely not,” he said, though the remnants of his smile were still clinging to his lips—joking in spite of himself. “I would much rather a hot pink. Purple, even.”

“Honestly, I could dig purple,” Tony said. “What's with you, though?”

“On Asgard,” Thor began, “w—”

“Wearing each other's colours is symbolic of intense romantic and/or sexual passion, yes, I know,” Loki brusquely finished. “Thank you. I'm sure Stark is thrilled to understand the punchline.”

“Well, it's neat trivia,” Tony said, chuckling.

“Alright, so we're good. Peter?”

“Wait, Peter? What—”

Tony's sentence fell flat as he suddenly noticed him crouched on the ceiling, awkwardly staring down at them over an empty bag of chips. He gaped.

“Hi,” Peter said, waving.

“How long have you been there?” Tony asked.

“Since… you opened the door? I just, uh, followed. Sorry.”

Loki shot another grin at Tony, who only glared. Peter dropped to the floor and awaited a response.

“Fine,” Tony huffed. “Watch over him, will you?”

“Me?” Loki asked.

“Yeah, you. Why? I thought you said you wouldn't hurt a kid.”

“Correct. And I quite like this one,” Loki added. “He's one of the more charming arachnids I've met.”

Peter flushed, his resulting smile spreading nearly ear to ear. “So I can go with Loki?”

“What, just you two?” Tony shook his head. “No. I meant watch over him while you’re with us.”

“It would be faster to split up,” Loki said.

“Loki, no.”

“Hey, Peter,” he began, turning towards him, “do you like ice cream?”

“Yeah, of course,” Peter said.

“I know a place.”

“I'm sorry, are you trying to bribe me with ice cream?” Tony said.

“I am, yes.” Loki smiled. “Is it working?”

Tony looked at Peter, who was still staring expectantly at him. Looked at Thor. Back at Loki. Another few seconds passed in silence before he sighed and returned the smile. “Get me some too.”

Peter and Loki high-fived.

Chapter Text

Peter's loaned glamour held as he walked out of the parlour, keeping him perfectly civilian in his dress while he lapped at a chocolate ice cream cone. Loki trailed behind him with several assorted pints nestled in the crook of his elbow, and in the three seconds that none of the passersby were looking, he buried them in a thick coat of ice and sent them into storage. Peter gawked.

“What are you staring at, spider?”

“I haven't seen a lot of magic outside of like, the past two days,” Peter said. “Of course I’m gonna stare.”

Loki chuckled. “No magic, really?”

“Well—maybe a little. But yeah.”

“Remind me to teach you some when this is over.”

Peter made some incoherent, ecstatic noise in the back of his throat. Loki ignored him and resumed his trudge down the street.

Glamours or no, they received all manner of fleeting looks from the people they passed, most of them directed at Loki, who was just a tad more recognizable in New York than Nowhere, Canada, it seemed—more recognizable than Peter, anyway. Whatever the case, he savoured the attention with a cheeky smile, while Peter only continued slurping his ice cream next to him.

They stopped at a crosswalk and waited for the light to change.

“What's the plan?” Peter asked.

“The plan,” Loki responded with a sideways glance, “is something that Stark wouldn't approve of in the slightest. In a nutshell”—he leaned against the metal pole—“I cast a spell on you that allows you to distinguish Æsir from humans at a glance. Just a simple vision alteration, nothing much. It'll make them stand out. Glowing auras and afterimages, that sort of thing.”

“Wow. Then what?”

“Oh, then—that's where your tricks come in. You're pretty good with heights, so I'm sure you'll have no problem finding a good vantage point. And I can spare a few teleportations if needed. No worries.”

“You can teleport?!”

“I can. I try not to.”

The little person turned white and Loki started across the street. Peter jogged up to his left, wide-eyed. “Why?” he asked.

“It's one of the more draining spells out there, so I avoid it when I can. Walking works fine most of the time.”

“Oh.”

“So!” Loki said, propping himself up against a random wall. “Where do you want to start?”

Peter stammered something that was probably meant as an answer, but the technicalities were lost. Loki sighed and whisked a tiny ball of magic into being between his thumb and forefinger.

“Oh my gosh that's cool,” Peter blurted.

“This might feel a little odd,” Loki said, rolling his eyes. “Hold still.”

Peter obliged. Loki pressed his fingers to his forehead, colouring Peter's irises an unnatural, emerald green for a split second before the magic dispersed, and then withdrew his hand.

Peter looked around. “Nothing changed?” he said, a confused lilt in his voice.

“It has,” Loki said. “You'll know when you see it. In the meantime, I think I'm going to…” He paused, trying to approximate how strong he was then—strong enough, no question; he smiled to himself. “Give me a moment.”

Peter waited, intrigued, as Loki peered up and down the street and then stepped into the gracious blind spot of a dead-end alley.

“You wanted to see magic,” Loki said. He breathed in, out, and beckoned him over. “Watch this.”

Wings, legs, feathers. Height. An additional spell to counter the extra weight and another to preserve his current form for ease of access. He closed his eyes and let the familiar warmth and buzz of shifting bathe him, leaving a bright green light in its wake.

Peter's startled yelp was telling of the shift's success before Loki even felt it. The rest of the heat faded and he straightened himself out, flexed his back, legs, and arms-turned-wings to make sure everything was correct, and swooped up onto Peter's shoulder. Behind the magpie's beak, he hoped his grin was obvious.

“Holy shit,” Peter said, staring straight into his eyes with stupefied awe.

Between the lack of a proper tongue and an unwillingness to try, say, telepathy, there wasn't much Loki could do to respond. It wasn't all that necessary, though; a quick cock of his head seemed to get his point across.

Peter finished his ice cream and formed his suit's headpiece, cancelling the glamour and reverting him to full Spider-Man-wear. At that, Loki dropped from his shoulder and flew off into the city, and he followed, dipping through the buildings by way of web-swinging—or it was really more Loki following him, he soon realized, with his bird-form looping just behind him as he moved.

In terms of searching, Loki certainly had the advantage. He swooped far into the clouds and then down again, coming up inches from the street and almost getting hit by a speeding driver and bursting so much with untamed exhilaration he didn't even care; all he could think was how much he'd missed this, the feel of wind under him and the push and pull of each flap, that indescribable sense of freedom even skywalking couldn't give him. All his shifts these days were people, with the most venturous of changes landing him in a child's body, and what a mistake. He'd been neglecting this form for too long.

Loki broke away from Peter for some five, ten minutes, circling to the other end of the area before returning to his line of sight. He perched on the closest roof and shifted back to his default with another flash of light.

Peter landed next to him. “Was that draining?” he asked, shedding his headpiece.

“A little,” Loki said. “I’ve shifted often enough that it’s not nearly as strenuous as it should be. Honestly, don't ask me how it works; not even I know.” He paused. “Did you find anything?”

“Um… I think? I’m not really sure.”

“Afterimages?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Ah. The spell tends to reveal recent travel. Could you tell where they led?”

“No, sorry.”

“No worries. We’ve got a fine view here,” Loki said, looking over the building's edge. “We can stay a while.”

Peter nodded. He sat legs dangling and joined Loki in watching the streets, waiting for some sign of his people. Everyone else was there: couples, celebrities, criminals. (It took all he had not to go after the latter.) No Asgardians, though. It felt like the world's worst round of Where's Waldo?, but he kept scanning the crowds.

“Loki?” he softly began, looking up at him.

“Yes, Peter?”

“What happened between you and Mr. Stark?”

Loki didn't answer at first. He sighed and said, “Long story. There was this… fight, and what else, and I also threw him out of a window this one time—”

“You threw him out of a window?”

“He was fine,” Loki said, waving his hand dismissively. “Armour and all. The intention behind it, though, that was… well, I didn't plan on him surviving.”

“Why?”

“He was in the way. Oh—oh dear,” Loki muttered, “that sounds even worse out loud.” A thoughtful look crossed him. “I wasn’t in a very good mindset back then. It was just after, um—you know.” He gestured vaguely towards himself. “And there was everything else, so… I got sadistic. Impulsive. I took my anger out on others, because what else could I do?”

“Therapy?”

“Oh, no. They would have had my head just for thinking about something irrelevant to their plan.”

“Their plan,” Peter mirrored with a frown.

“You know, the whole Infinity Stone spiel and all that. Serving their lord and saviour Thanos for the greater good!” Loki spread his arms wide.

“Well, he's dead now, right? So… yay?”

Loki laughed. “And you helped there, too. I'd offer a toast, but I'm afraid all the drinks I have on me would instantly kill you, so maybe not.”

“Oh, come on.”

“No, I'm serious. Asgardian liquor is notoriously strong.”

A siren somewhere stole their attention, and Loki grimaced at the feel of death in the air. So did Peter; he spotted the ambulance almost instinctively and watched as it zipped through the boulevard, looking away only once it veered out of sight. The sombre tone took a little longer.

“Do you miss Asgard?” Peter asked.

“I miss my old life,” Loki said, a hollow, emotionless depth in his voice. “Back when everything was going as it was supposed to. Back when that realm actually meant something to me. Before all… this.”

“I get it,” Peter said. “Wanting your old life back. I feel the same.”

“Of course you do.” Loki smiled sympathetically. “Mercy isn’t really fate’s nature.”

“I guess not.”

Loki held the smile for another second, unsure what else to do, then stood and shifted once more. Peter wordlessly followed him off the roof.

 

Chapter Text

Loki and Peter cut their search short just before dinnertime, returning to the compound together and buzzing in with relative ease. They went straight to the lounge on account of Peter, who made a beeline for the fridge the instant they rounded the corner.

Loki let his glamour slide and sat nearby, absently watching as Peter dug through the fridge's contents. His skin was crawling and he had the first prick of panic weighing down on his chest, and he stopped, swallowed, and looked around. They were early was all, and an empty room wasn't that odd, anyway. Peter would have felt it too if something was actually wrong; instead, he seemed calm as ever as he picked up and examined random food. It was just him.

Peter closed the fridge and moved to the pantries, where he repeated the process. He eventually settled on a tin of salted peanuts, which he pulled from behind several bags of various grains with a triumphant whoop. Loki smiled and

(it's too quiet)

asked, “Are you sharing?”

“Do you want some?” Peter responded, opening the tin. “I could—I could. Share. But I'm starving, and I don't know when I'll be home.” His eyes widened. “I should be home. I got distracted. Oh, man.”

“It's not that late,” Loki said, waving his hand. “You're fine.”

“I mean, I guess. My aunt thinks I'm at a friend's house. She's not wrong.”

(it's too goddamn quiet)

Loki's smile faltered. “I'm going to my room. Enjoy your… dinner?”

Peter mumbled a thanks around a handful of peanuts. Loki smiled again, uncomfortably and almost automatically, then got up. He considered sending a bug to search the building, keep him at a safe distance while he figured out what was setting him off so much, but by the time it occurred to him to do so, he was already out of the lounge and making quick, light-footed rounds of each room—no invisibility, no dampening, nothing. Probably not the best idea, now that he thought about it, but he knew his presence made them restless; sneaking around would only worsen it. To that extent, he tried to keep his investigation somewhat close to the dorms. If anyone asked, he was lost on the way to his room. Peter could vouch for him.

Loki turned and ducked into another hall. Looking over his shoulder, he could still see Peter pacing around the kitchen, unsuccessfully juggling between the peanuts and his phone. Half of him wanted to stay and join him; the other half of wanted to just go to his room after all, sit down and take a breather or something because he was seriously starting to choke a little, but he knew himself well enough to know that neither would help. He also knew that he was overreacting. He didn't care.

He checked the doors, pressing his ear to each one for a few seconds before continuing down the row. His gut feelings were always so cryptic; part of him was still more than positive it was just his nerves acting up again, but goodness, no—there was something. They weren't just early and the floor wasn't that abandoned just because everyone was busy or what else.

Or was he really only paranoid?

( are you? )

He wavered on the next door, his mouth suddenly dry and something tugging at his guts. Slowly, he leaned in and listened. Nothing.

(they're talking about you)

Loki tried the last door. A few seconds passed in silence, after which he drew back and started on the other side. Still nothing; not the second door, not the third. Nothing.

Then he got to the fourth door.

He was against it just long enough to hear the end of a sentence, some foreign curse, and then Strange's voice: “I can feel him.”

Abort mission, Loki's mind blared, but some form of either stubbornness, fear, or both kept him glued to the frame. One of these days, he swore his curiosity would be the death of him. Hopefully, it wasn't today.

“What?” That was unmistakably Tony.

“Loki. I can feel him. He's… right outside. Yeah.”

“Oh, you've gotta be kidding me. Loki! Get in here.”

Stupid wizard and his meddling bullshit. God damn it.

Loki sighed and pushed the door open. “First of all,” he said, jutting an almost knifelike finger at him, “that was rude, unnecessary, and I hate you for that.”

“Then don't eavesdrop,” Strange retorted, rolling his eyes.

“How's the kid?” Tony asked.

“Fine. He's”—Loki peered down the hall—“eating peanuts on the countertop.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he's crouched on the edge,” Loki explained, glancing at Tony. “It's rather adorable, actually.”

“Okay, that's gross, though. Tell him to get off.”

Loki sighed again and stepped entirely behind the door. “Peter!” he called.

“Yeah?” echoed his response.

“Get off the counter.”

“Why?”

“Stark said so.”

Peter leapt onto the floor and yelled, “Sorry.”

“Don't worry about it,” Tony yelled back.

Loki stayed there for a moment, safe in the hall's length, before entering the room completely. It was a regular conference room, with scattered screens and a single large table and window. Among those seated he recognized Tony, Steve, Strange, Natasha, Bruce, and Thor, the last of whom looked profoundly apologetic just in being there. No one spoke; they stared like deer in headlights, almost waiting for someone else to take over.

Loki wondered if he was opening Pandora’s box. He locked his hands together and said, “So this is about me, then.”

Tony was clearly about to deny it. Then he cut himself off, gave an embarrassed not-quite-a-smile, and said, “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Mm.” Loki sauntered away from the open door, shoulders taut, an almost-sneer on his face, and a flick of leaking magic dusting his eyes green—everything about him radiating anger and annoyance to hide the fact that right then, he was genuinely, truly terrified. “This is a little rude,” he said, stopping just in front of the table. “Talking behind my back? Well… actually, I hadn't put it past most of you. Thor, though? Really?”

“Sorry,” Thor said.

“Not accepted. May I sit?”

“You might as well,” Tony said.

Loki took one of the two empty chairs at the end of the table, such that there was another chair's space between him and the person to his left and such that Steve Rogers was situated directly across from him. The table's width felt uncomfortably small and he was sure that if either of them had any less self-control, they'd be at each other's throats, but Steve only sent him an acknowledging glare and raise of his chin. Loki smiled and returned the gesture.

“I told you guys this was a terrible idea,” Tony said, crossing his arms, “but you wouldn't listen.”

“So we were just going to ignore the elephant in the room?” Steve responded, his eyes still on Loki. “Yeah, that sounds smart. Let him just sit there and scheme all day.”

“Who taught you manners, Rogers?” Loki asked with a distasteful twitch of his nose. “Third person? I'm right here.”

“Oh, did I offend your royal sensibilities? My bad.”

“Cap, please,” Tony sighed. “Don't be an ass. Loki, please accept that some people are asses. Can we get back to figuring all this out?”

“Fine,” Steve said. “Summarize for Loki, would you?”

“Happily. Loki.” Tony faced him. “You did a lot of messed up stuff way back, you pretty much saved all our lives yesterday, Thor and Bruce obviously trust you at least somewhat, and other than that, no one's sure what to do about you. Also, I think you count as a fugitive. We're working on that. And I wasn't planning on excluding you,” Tony quickly added, “just so you know. Staring Contest over there and a few others insisted it was critically urgent and we weren't sure when you'd be back, so…”

“Right.”

“Okay, moving along, then.”

“Loki is a changed person,” Thor said.

“Who just appeared out of nowhere and killed this guy,” Steve trailed, a light, unamused chuckle beneath the words. “Don't get me wrong; I'm really grateful. Thanks, actually.” He nodded at Loki. “But that's it. I mean, did you see the condition of the body?”

“You know very well what Thanos has done. Are you defending him?”

“No, I'm not. Don't think that for one second, Thor. I'm saying killing someone like that is plain unhinged.”

“You would have done the same thing,” Tony said. “The whole thing was tense as hell and there was revenge in play, and even without that, using the method to back Loki being dangerous or irredeemable or whatever is stupid. Come up with a better argument, for God's sake.”

“Fine. You mentioned revenge. What's to say Loki didn't do this for his own satisfaction and nothing else?”

“I am,” Thor growled. “It was for Asgard. It was for everyone Thanos ever ruined. Loki may have found satisfaction in carrying out his death, but it wasn't the motive.”

“Okay. What about New York? How do we know that won't happen again?”

“It won't,” Loki calmly said. “It will never happen again. Not by my hand.”

“How do I know that?”

Thanos. Thanos was gone now. There was no one to force him. That was all there was to it—except the words wouldn't exit his throat and even if they did, who could prove they were true? Thor?

“What's happening?” came Peter's voice just then; they all looked up to see him standing in the doorway, peanuts and phone both still in tow.

“Nothing important,” Loki answered.

“No, this concerns him too,” Tony said. “Come on.”

Loki sighed and motioned for Peter, who capered over and sat awkwardly cross-legged in the seat next to him.

“I’m a little confused,” Peter said, setting his things on the table. “I heard everything after New York. What won't happen again?”

“Five years ago,” Steve said. “You know what we're referring to.”

Loki winced.

“Five years ago?” The realization took a moment; when it came, Peter's jaw dropped practically to the floor. “Holy shit,” he yelped, “that was you?!”

“Hey!” Tony barked.

“Oh, crap, sorry. Loki?”

He nodded stiffly.

“For which he should be arrested immediately,” Steve said, looking at Peter and then the rest of them. “In fact, I propose a vote. All in favour of arresting Loki for crimes against humanity, raise your hand.”

Several arms went up. Which of them were serious, Loki didn't know and didn't want to find out. “So,” he said, “I'm still a villain, after all.”

“Yep,” Steve confirmed.

“No!” Tony snapped. “Shut up. Okay, so legally, you're screwed. War criminal and all. I have no idea how or if Titan will affect that and everyone's too scared to ask, but I'm guessing that whatever the case, it won't be a walk in the park.”

“I thought Thor dealt with that?” Loki asked.

“Not officially. He'd definitely have some influence here, but again, no one's asked about this yet because we don't know what crazy group is going to pop in on us like hey, uh, you have something of ours, and two—apparently without any permanent land, some books don't even classify Thor as a king anymore. So there's… that. Not quite as relevant, but I guarantee you someone somewhere is going to find a way to make that a pain in the ass.”

“Well,” Loki began with a thoughtful look, “once we've found everyone, we'll need to settle somewhere, won't we? So the lack of land isn't permanent, hopefully.”

“Hopefully, yeah. That's a whole different matter.”

“I still don't trust him,” Steve said. “Why should any of us?”

“Because he did a lot for us and he deserves a second chance. He earned it, Cap. I saw him out there. I'm not telling you to trust him; I'm telling you to give him a second chance. You asked me if I'm comfortable around him? I'm not. I'm not comfortable one bit and I'm willing to give him that chance.”

“Or we could go with my plan and be done with it.”

“I'm flattered,” Loki said, “but I doubt you'll even get to try.”

“Right you are, Lokes,” Tony confirmed.

“When did 'Lokes' happen?” Strange asked.

“Today. And you've been way too quiet. What else did you see?”

“That this discussion is completely pointless and almost all of the outcomes involve Loki winning.”

“So the wizard's both half-rate and clairvoyant,” Loki said, betting on humour to hide his still-present unease.

Tony snickered. “Nah, Time Stone.”

“Um, can I say something?” Peter blurted.

“No. Wait, maybe. You're alive. That's probably worth something.”

“What?” Bruce said.

“Yeah, I let Loki babysit him. Craziest impulse decision I've ever made, but hey—they're still here. What did you guys do, anyway?”

“I showed him some magic and we got ice cream, as requested.” Loki whisked the pints into being in front of Tony, who stifled a laugh. “I wasn't sure what kind you wanted, so I got several.”

“You got ice cream,” Steve said with a disbelieving squint.

“We also raided a nearby settlement and declared war on Portugal. Nothing major. Right, Peter?” Loki added, elbowing him lightly; Peter only smiled.

“Okay, can we go back to the war crime thing?”

“You seem intent on maintaining your grudges,” Loki said, frowning. “Pray tell, wizard”—he looked over—“who died in the aftermath of our failure? Did one of them happen to be that tall, dark, handsome fellow I always see with Rogers?”

Strange hesitated for a long few seconds, then simply answered, “Yes.”

Steve made a strangled noise in the back of his throat.

Tony shot Loki a look. “Was that necessary?”

“I needed to prove a point,” Loki said. “And for what it’s worth, I was bluffing.”

“Right. What point was that?”

“That it’s a good thing I was watching you lot. Some of you are terribly ungrateful.”

“Sorry,” Steve said. “Some of us are still a little shaken over your stunt.”

“My stunt,” Loki repeated, his lip curling slightly. “Are we thinking of the same stunt? Because if so, you should know I was forced into it.”

“Forced? By who?”

“Who do you think?” Loki growled. “Did no one tell you? Stark, please. No details. Would you tell him about Titan?”

“Yeah. Loki spent a good several minutes calling Thanos out on all the shit he did, which included forcing him to serve.”

Several people objected again. Thor, meanwhile, was alarmingly, maddeningly silent, and Loki realized that he'd never spoken a word to him about this—main points, general ideas, but never the specifics. Thanos had not been mentioned once; that he and Loki knew each other, that there had been something vile between them was a vague hypothetical gathered on the Statesman, and that was it. Thor hadn't been present for the rest.

“Loki,” he managed, “you never told me this.”

“You didn't need to know,” Loki said, shaking his head. New York. He hadn't known a single thing. Odin, the Bifröst: tip of the iceberg, not even touching on—

Loki—

“You will never hear about it from me,” he sharply continued. Nothing else; it ought to stay like that, he figured. No pain. Nothing. “Do you understand?” he said, evening his tone. “I was forced. Those are all the details I'll permit. I expect the same from the rest of you,” he added with a sweeping look.

A moment went by in tense, smothering silence. Natasha was the first to break it; “Loki?” she tentatively began.

“Romanoff,” he said, smiling curtly and semi-sincerely. “What say you? Do I belong in a prison?”

“That's… hard to answer. Personally? I don't think so. If I did, well—I'd be in prison too.”

“Oh?” His brows went up. “That's new.”

“You think we were born heroes? God, no. We grew into them. People change, and it's wrong to take that opportunity from you. Hate to say it, guys”—she looked over the crowd—“but I'm siding with Loki on this.”

Several others followed suit and muttered their approval. Two of them had raised their hands earlier, which Loki found bleakly amusing.

“Am I really the only one seeing this?” Steve said. “He's manipulating you.”

“He's not manipulating shit, Cap. Chill.”

“I'm chill, Tony. I'm very chill. We don't even know if he was forced.”

“Source?”

“I don't need a source. It's Loki.”

“Cool, so you don't have an argument. Anyone else?” Tony paused. “Okay, let me make something abundantly clear,” he said, returning his attention to Steve. “We have a truce. I will keep bringing this up again and again because we promised Thor, I'm pretty sure we promised Loki, and even if we didn't, I'm not kicking anyone out right now, I'm not arresting anyone, and I'm also this close to losing it. Talk to me when you're ready for an actual debate.”

Steve just about snorted.

“I'm still standing by what I said,” Natasha said. “I don't trust Loki either, but I think we should move past what happened for now. We're all back together and we're tired from the fight and that's taking enough of a toll on us. We don't need this too.”

“See?” Tony said. “That's a good argument.”

“Okay, let me try this again,” Steve said. “Loki hurt us all, he's known for lying, that's making me feel very unsafe, and I just don't want this to end badly.”

“Great. That's a solid statement and I understand and respect all of it.”

“Then you understand why I'd rather not keep him in one building with us.”

Anger surged in Loki's gut and he breathed in, breathed out, tried not to let it get the better of him. He didn't need to reinforce the mistrust. “I think Romanoff has a point,” he said. “And even if I were to attempt something, it wouldn't be here. I'm not that reckless.”

“Sorry, kid, but no.”

“Alright, first of all, I'm a good thousand years older than you. Second, are you sure? Because you're somewhat outnumbered.”

“I'm sure. Sorry,” Steve repeated, deliberately and a little harshly, “but you'll have to forgive me if I don't trust a mass murderer.”

Snap. Someone with a history like Steve's had no right to call him out so flippantly—no right at all. Loki bolted upright, walked over, and yanked him out of his seat by the collar of his tee. “How dare you?” he hissed, dragging him away from the table.

Roughly half of the crowd rose to match them, with Peter withdrawing to the far end of the room. He watched from behind his food as Steve said, “I don't need to justify myself to you.”

Loki tightened his grip. “Neither do I.”

“Guys?” Peter called.

“The adults are talking,” Loki casually replied.

“Let him go,” Tony said, standing. “That's enough. Both of you.”

“And what exactly did I do?” Steve asked.

“You pushed him, alright?”

“Pushed him?” Steve jerked out of Loki's hold. “There was nothing to push,” he said, leering over at Tony. “'Forced'. He wasn't—”

The sentence fell flat as Loki pulled him close and thrust a hand to his forehead. Their eyes glowed a matching shade of green as he slowed their perception, lifted the thoughts to the surface,

(and there—)

A knife ripped through his side and he screamed. He never screamed grit his teeth and killed the sound, enduring the fire with a long whine—and then the man twisted hard and he screamed again.

“Fight it,” the man snarled, wrenching the blade out.

Loki breathed in, a series of short, desperate pants, and tried to focus. He barely even heard the words through the static in his consciousness.

The knife went through his shoulder and he grunted, staggering back against the chains at his wrists.

“Fight it!”

“I'm trying,” he softly stammered. “I'm—I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm—”

Steve stumbled backwards then, tearing the link. Loki made to grab him again, only to be stopped by several members of the crowd—and oh, no, he was done. He yelled a foreign insult and pushed them away with a weak shockwave, making sure it wasn't strong enough to harm, and then replaced his hand, firmly clutching Steve with his other as he produced the next memory.

Loki said something wrong again; he didn't remember what, but they didn't like it. Thanos was checking on his progress visiting for once (it's been a while, how long?) and he lashed out, told him he was close, so close to greatness, glorious purpose, that he just needed a little more—

A massive leg struck Loki in the chest and he flew several metres before landing on his back with a shriek. Something cracked. He reached for his right ribs and immediately recoiled, teary-eyed. The movement alone burned; he winced again and shallowed his breathing.

“I'm sorry,” he wheezed, hauling himself to his feet. “I'm sorry. It's a habit.”

(what did you even say)

One beat. Two beats.

The conversation changed; now he really upset them. They wanted his help. They wanted him to retrieve an item as compensation for saving him, fixing Asgard's poison—

(still want to die, they didn't fix shit)

Glorious purpose. Asgard shunned him for being better, stronger. He knew that now. He knew if he left, he would be no better than before. For a moment, though, there was the old Loki, and he doubted their words. He didn't want to help, and he knew he was wrong for thinking so; it was purely automatic. He tried to take it back. Too late.

Thanos kicked him again and another crack sounded. Loki didn’t stand.

Kick; his chest was on fire. Kick. Kick.

The image flickered away.

(thanos will bleed)

The phrase hammered through Loki's mind like a chant. He didn't know where it came from, or why; they helped him. They made him better. His subconscious held a grudge, he supposed, and he should have blocked it out, but he couldn't. It was all he could hear as he observed his pale and mottled face in the dusty mirror, as he brushed the clumps from his hair with his fingers. He tapped a tiny scar on his cheek and watched it fade under a cloak of magic, suddenly aware of just how much he'd missed it. Though the idea made itself present, he had neither the strength nor the willpower for anything other than cosmetics—and even if he did, it would be awfully thankless on his part.

(thanos will bleed)

Something dropped behind him and he stared at its reflection for several seconds before realizing it was his old armour, stacked together in a messy pile. He bent to pick it up and examined its details, checking for any damage, and then held it against his form, only to drop it with a hiccupped sob when he saw how oversized it appeared next to his gaunt frame. An alien swear escaped him and he turned away from the mirror, refusing to look at it again while he dug through the pile for his undersuit.

(thanos

will

bleed)

When he finally found the full set of garments, he couldn't get over how gently they draped over his hands. The fabric felt wrong. It was too fine, too soft. It didn't grate his skin the way everything else did. He tugged the pants on with a long, drawn-out grunt of pain, and did the same with the shirt and forearm wraps. The tightness ached, but it was a comforting ache; it soothed the swelling. He continued with the armour itself, first the bottoms, then the top, then the overcoat. The boots were last. He would have killed a man for a pair of warm, clean socks to wear them with, but just the ones he'd been wearing had been lost over the many months his clothes were in storage, so he had to make do with nothing. That was fine; he'd been doing it long enough. He slid his bare feet into the leather with another grunt, painfully aware of the multiple half-healed blisters along their lengths, and righted himself. It stung, made him want to just sit back down and cry, but—

(he'll have your head for that; get to work, boy, get to work!)

Loki turned and chanced a last gaze at the mirror. The words were still there, scraping at his throat, but he didn't dare speak them. There was no point, and even if there was—

They were false.

He couldn't sustain the memories any further. He released Steve and pressed himself to the closest wall, hyper-aware of the numbness in his body, the thrum in his ears. The voices blurred. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t—

“Okay, what the hell?” Tony hissed, gripping him by a shoulder.

(breathe)

“Tony, he didn't—”

(breathe breathe breathe)

“Didn't what?”

Loki heaved a large measure of air and shoved Tony off.

“He just—oh my God.” Steve brought a hand to his head. “He just—he just showed me his memories?”

Tony stepped back. “What?”

Loki sank to the floor, arms around his chest, and started counting in his head. He could still feel his bones splintering, the hushed breaths he took for fear of puncturing a lung. He couldn't even see clearly.

“His memories,” Steve quietly said. No, not just memories, Loki and him both knew; he’d used magic to enhance their vividness, their bite. They weren’t the real thing, but they were close. “No—no, maybe he—”

“Faked them?” Tony offered. “Oh, no.” He took another look at Loki. “You can’t fake this.”

It was a mistake, Loki thought. His anger had surpassed his pride again, and now—

“What did you see?”

“Thanos. Th-the things he did, he—fuck, I'm such a jackass.”

Any other day, Tony would’ve given him a snarky, more than mocking censure regarding his language, but it would have been gauche given the context. Loki's breathing hadn't relaxed whatsoever, and Tony was almost worried he might pass out.“Hey,” he said, crouching beside him. “You alright?”

Loki muttered something in response and buried his face in his knees. Tony sighed.

“I didn't—”

“Cap. Hey.” Tony stood. “Shut up. You did this.”

“I told you”—his voice cracked—“he's volatile!

“So you pissed him off and now he's freaking out, yeah. Good job! At least he got you too, huh?”

“Tony—”

Loki vanished.

The green tint to the air took a second to disappear. Tony watched it wither into nothing, his mouth slightly open in surprise, and then sighed.

“And now he's gone,” Tony said. “Great.” He looked at Strange, who wouldn't even return his gaze. “You knew this would happen. Fuck you. Pete, I'm sorry you had to see that.” Then he turned and left.

No one spoke. There was simply nothing to say.

 

Chapter Text

Tony's morning was nothing special. He woke up, promptly sank into sleep once more, and then woke again for real as the curtains were mechanically drawn apart, at which he muttered something to himself about how wiring FRIDAY into his room was a mistake and how he would definitely remove her the next time, even though he'd said that countless other days and never followed through. Then he pulled the covers tighter and shoved his face into the pillow, where he stayed for the next forty minutes before finally dragging himself off the bed.

He didn't bother with anything more than a quick shave and shower before heading down to the lounge in search of coffee, first and foremost, because he really wasn't in the mood to brew some himself.

The room was emptier than yesterday, with only a few people to fill it—no Steve Rogers among them. They looked up as Tony walked in and then returned to whatever they were discussing.

Most of the regulars were too busy sorting paperwork or running errands to be there then, he knew. Others had probably left for good, namely the strangers from Titan: the tall one, the shorter, snarky one, the girl with the antennae, the girl with the blue skin, and the talking raccoon. Snark and blue-skin, he had heard, were both so upset by the battle's turnout that it was a wonder they'd stuck around at all. With that, he figured they'd gone to clear their heads and the rest of the crew had simply followed suit the way crews typically did. Too bad about the raccoon; the stage presence of that guy had been absolutely magnificent. Other than that… well, he didn't care much.

He swung into the kitchen, saw with a wave of relief that there was indeed coffee out—more than half a pot—and then went to find a mug. The one he grabbed was bright pink and said “drama queen” in a curly, ostentatious font because seriously, he did not care. He dumped as much liquid inside as he could fit and then carried the mug with him to one of the couches.

Tony had taken exactly two sips when he abruptly realized that he hadn't heard a thing about Loki since yesterday's incident.

“Hey,” he said, leaning over the backrest, “has anyone seen Loki?”

Silence.

“Loki,” Bruce mirrored, a thoughtful look on his face. “He's not in his room?”

Was he?

Tony frowned and made his way back to the dorms, trying to remember which one he had gifted to Loki—farthest on the left, a small crack in the door. He knocked and waited for an answer, but there was none.

He knocked again. “Loki?”

Nothing. Of course. He took another swig of coffee and tested the handle, and upon meeting no resistance, he entered.

Loki was nowhere to be seen, as guessed. The room was curiously untouched, with the only sign of life being the tangled bedspreads and a forgotten comb by the bathroom sink, which was visible past the open door. There was no note, no explanation. Nothing.

Tony sighed. Lucky for him, maybe a little unlucky for his conscience, he'd wired this room, as well. He finished his coffee, sat on the bed, and asked, “FRIDAY? Is Loki in the building?”

“No,” FRIDAY answered after a moment's pause. “He left about three hours ago.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Fantastic.

“Alright,” Tony said, standing. “Thanks.”

There was no further response. He gave the room a last once-over, feeling a bloom of anger, guilt, everything in his chest, and then proceeded to his workshop.

 

Chapter Text

Thousands of miles and half a dozen hours from the Avengers compound, the farmer's market was teeming with life. It was a crisp, late afternoon, and merchants and customers alike filled the streets, wandering back and forth between kiosks with bags and boxes in tow. The majority of the stands sold food; one of the most popular stops, for example, had several huge pots of soups and stews laid out, with stacks of disposable bowls laid next to them. There were other items to be found, of course: handmade garments, tools, and original artworks, to name a few. Most of the action, however, was centred around said consumables—particularly the soup station.

The kiosk's popularity meant there was a disproportionately large gathering around the array of pots, and it was more than welcome, since it left the finer stands free of long waits. One such stand offered gourmet, if somewhat overpriced, preserved meats. There, the line was virtually nonexistent.

Loki strolled up, claimed two jars of fish, and placed a single gold coin by the cash register. The woman blinked, stared at the coin, then at him, then at the coin again. She pinched it between her thumb and index finger, inspecting it with a half-trained eye, and pushed her nail against the rim, in hopes of, Loki figured, a dent—the easiest method to determine gold's purity. He wasn't looking, but when her mouth fell open in an excited grin, he was fairly certain she had succeeded.

Takk,” he said then, smiling, speaking the word as smoothly as any other: thank you, for the purchase or otherwise, for any or all of the above—and he wondered briefly, curiously, if he was still using the Allspeak; these languages were so close to his mother tongue, he could never tell.

The woman smiled back, slid the coin into her pocket, and then returned to her novel. Loki whisked the jars into storage and continued down the street.

As he walked, he found himself absently glancing left and right at the arrangements he passed. They reminded him of home, of their own bygone markets on Asgard, and it gave him an odd bliss to know that some countries still carried their influences. He'd been here before and for various reasons over the years, but this was the first time he'd really appreciated the place—no wars, no secret plans; just the calm of a warm, windy square and everything it brought. His only gripe, in fact, was that it was much warmer than the season's usual, such that he wasn't properly equipped; beneath a cheap glamour of black slacks and a dark green turtleneck rolled to the elbows, his leather armour did nothing for comfort.

Mild overheating was a small price to pay for safety, so Loki ignored it for the most part. His main focus now was a display of hunting knives—weaker than he was used to, same as the sword, but knives nonetheless, which always gave him a little joy.

He barely picked one up to examine before what was very distinctly Tony's voice called his name from behind.

For a moment, Loki said nothing; he kept his eye on the blade, examining the craftsmanship and thinking how charming it was that even with inferior materials, the techniques and subtleties were largely the same. Then he secured it in its prior spot and turned, matching Tony's bare greeting: “Stark,” he said. His lips twitched into a half-second smile. “Hello. I was wondering when you'd come.”

“I'm sorry,” Tony said, and Loki's expression shifted to a confused squint.

“What for?” he asked.

“You know,” Tony said, frowning. “For last night. The fight and everything.”

Loki stepped away from the kiosk. “That wasn’t your doing.”

“Yeah, but I could’ve stopped it before it got that bad.”

“Could you have?” Loki said, falling into another smile—dryer, disbelieving. Tony made to answer, only for him to continue, “Nothing short of beating us both bloody would have stopped it. You know that.” He stopped and looked around, noting the intrigued gazes. Most were directed towards Tony, as expected, but some were stubbornly clinging to him, instead. Too stubbornly. “I think,” he calmly offered, “we should find somewhere quieter to have this conversation. Your fans are making me uneasy.”

“Yeah, you're probably right,” Tony said. “Sorry about that.”

“No, I understand.” Loki ambled into the centre of the street, where the crowd was thinnest, and resumed his path down the market. “Walk with me,” he said, not looking to see if Tony was following, which he was.

“I just wanted to say—”

“Shh. Look at that.” Loki nodded at the passersby, who had yet to cease their staring. “I enjoy attention as much as you do, I'm sure, but this isn't good for someone of my standing. You talking to me has already voided my status here as a generic civilian.”

Tony coughed a short, sheepish chuckle and distanced himself, maintaining an otherwise even pace to Loki's right.

“Actually,” Loki abruptly began, “I could disguise you if you want. It would make things easier on us.”

“No thanks,” Tony replied.

At that, the enforced silence restarted.

They walked together for some five minutes, with Loki leading. He cut through various gaps and corners, ducked around others—very neatly avoiding collisions in both cases—while Tony trailed farther behind, opting for a more sensible route. Their terminus came just out of the market's boundaries, on a quaint, wooden bench nestled between two weed-riddled buildings. Loki sat waiting in one end; after some light deliberation, Tony joined him in the other.

The lack of dialogue dragged on for about thirty seconds, after which Loki asked genuinely, but with a humourous spark in his eyes, “Fancy a pickled herring?”

“A what now?” Tony said, comically recoiling.

Loki summoned one of the jars and presented it to him. “Scandinavian staple,” he explained, smiling again. “And Asgardian—and a few others, I think. Though I can't say which of us did it first. Anyway, they're good.”

“Uh… I'll try one later.”

Loki shrugged and returned the jar to its place. “How did you find me?”

“You'll laugh if I tell you.”

“I might.”

“I did a global scan and then got Thor to bring me here. I would have flown”—Tony gestured to his chest, where the sweater he had on was, surprisingly, bare of any casing—“but it was already taking a while and I was kind of freaked out regarding this whole thing, so it was just the better option, I guess. Quicker.”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “You were worried?”

“Uh, after what happened? Yeah, a little.”

“I can defend myself.”

“I never said you couldn't.”

Loki paused, looking away as he crafted his next words. His nape felt even clammier than before; fleetingly, he debated putting his hair up. “How is he?” he asked, facing Tony.

“He's… still in pretty bad shape. After you left, I guess he just had time to further process all that, and it—well, he's definitely worse. I can't even imagine what it was like.”

Loki didn't answer. “Good,” he flatly said. “He deserves a blow to his arrogance.”

“Can't say I disagree,” Tony muttered. “Forget about him, though. How are you, Loki?”

“Fine, you?”

“I mean, I've got all this to deal with”—Tony waved an arm—“but yeah, I'm okay.”

“We're both lying.”

Tony opened his mouth, closed it again, and then shrugged in defeat.

“I appreciate your concern,” Loki went on. It was Tony's turn to raise a brow.

“I owe you,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”

Loki shook his head. “You've done more than enough. That truce, for one—”

“Ah, fuck, the truce,” Tony groaned. “Yeah, and they went and screwed it up, didn't they?” Loki glared. “Two days—not even. That's all it took.”

“You're failing to see,” Loki sharply continued, “that even with that fight, this is still far more than I was expecting. I wasn't expecting the truce to last even a day. I was expecting… I don't know. I woke up in that bed and my first thought was, 'I'm going to die,' and you haven't made a single move on me.”

“But—”

“I'm not done,” Loki said, holding up a hand. “Your first instinct on Titan, after seeing all that and seeing how desperate Thor was—bless his soul—was to call for a truce. Most people would have looked at the way I fought out there, and the way I fought five years ago, and they would have said, no, I'm too unstable, I don't deserve this, whatever, and you didn't do any of that. You took me in, no questions asked, and that's more than you could have ever done. Stop belittling yourself.”

Tony didn't try to respond.

“Has anyone told him?” Loki softly asked.

“Thor?”

Loki nodded.

“Unless someone decided that ignoring a violence-prone demigod’s direct orders was a good idea while I was gone, no.” Tony leaned into his hands. “Why don’t you want him to know?”

“He’ll never forgive himself.”

“For what? For this? It’s not his fault.”

“Oh, it is. Trust me. And he blames himself. He blames himself every day, and I know it’ll only get worse if he finds out the true extent of the damage. I'm not that sadistic.”

Tony frowned. “What happened?”

Loki went quiet again, unsure how to answer. He could tell him, of course; he could list everything from A to Z—literally, adoption to zealot wanting him to serve. He easily could have. Tony had already seen him catatonic with fear, crying his face off, and knowing the tale in its entirety would do nothing to further harm his perception of him. And it wasn't like the information could be used for anything, either. What, would Tony figure out the kind of methods that worked on him? How to make him talk? He could figure that out without the details.

It was tempting, certainly; Loki couldn't deny that. There was no benefit, though, just as there wasn't really any peril, so after another several seconds, he decided to maintain the secrecy. No change, no risk—even small as it was.

His neck was still hot.

With no additional thought, Loki pulled his hair up, formed an elastic around his fingers, and tied it into a loose bun. He tested the knot's strength and then returned his hands to his lap. “That's a story for another time,” he said—and in the same instant, a weight in his stomach winked out of existence.

“Whenever you're ready,” Tony said.

“Right.” Loki sighed. “Why are you here?”

“Pete misses you.”

“Ah, so you're retrieving me.”

“That's not—no. Yes, but also no. I mean, I did want to check in on you, too.”

“And I still appreciate that. I do. Anyway, tell him I'm not comfortable around people who clearly dislike and distrust me. Unless”—Loki rolled his eyes—“you're okay with someone mysteriously turning up dead before the end of the week.”

“Yeah, please don't do that.”

Loki gave him an impassive look. “Murder or permanent vacation in Norway, Stark. Pick one.”

“Okay,” Tony said, “what if you just resolve any conflicts without killing people? Beat them up if you have to. Wait, no, that's also not good. Just—no violence! Yell at them or something, I don't know. Or turn them into a frog. You mentioned that once. That would definitely be a good punishment.”

“It'd certainly be fun to watch,” Loki admitted, smiling to himself.

“And Pete would either lose his shit or adopt them,” Tony said.

“Or both.”

“Absolutely right. And you know what? You will never get to see that unless you come back.”

“Unfortunate.”

“No, no, it's not unfortunate, because you”—Tony pointed—“are going to be there. You know why? Because he has been texting me all morning asking about you and oh my God, I can't take it anymore. Forget your weird fish market and come back already.”

“Hey,” Loki said, feigning offence. “I like my weird fish market.”

“Okay, yeah, that was too far. Sorry for dissing the weird fish market.”

“If you say weird fish market again, I'm going to hit you.”

“Alright, change of topic. Remember what Nat said?”

“Somewhat.”

“Right, the gist was that not only would it be a dick move, it would be super hypocritical if we kicked you out now, because, and this is a big because, at least half of us counted as criminals at some point. You know what she forgot to mention? A few people are currently wanted! Currently. Let that word sink in.”

“Yes, it's sunk,” Loki said. “And?”

“Then,” Tony continued, “you acknowledge that I will personally fight anyone who causes shit because of your past, because one, that truce is still on, no matter what anyone says, and two, we don't have room for hypocrites in our crazy super-family. Got that?”

“You don't just want Peter to stop harassing you?” Loki asked.

“No, jeez,” Tony said. “I mean, yes, but not just that. I just want to make it up to you, you know? I feel terrible for letting you relive all those memories and this is my way of feeling less terrible.”

“I threw you out of a window,” Loki casually reminded.

“Yeah.” Tony breathed in heavily, nodded. “Yeah, you did. But you also stopped half the universe from dying, which, you know, that may or may not have included me and my loved ones. I think that evens things out.”

“If you say so.” Loki paused, considering Tony's lack of suit—that Thor had brought him here, supposedly. That was… interesting. Just how much had he missed? “You really must elaborate,” he began, “regarding you and Thor. I'm curious as to how he managed the transport.”

“Oh, you're gonna love this,” Tony said, eyes bright. “Okay, so he needed a new weapon, right? I mean, from what I saw, he never got to use it, but—anyway, that axe he got, according to him, has the power of the… Bifröst?” Loki affirmed the pronunciation with a nod. “Yeah, so it has that power imbued in it, apparently, which lets him zip around pretty much wherever he wants, and turns out, he can take passengers with him. It's not too bad, actually. Just kinda disorienting.”

Loki was about to further inquire about the axe when he suddenly recognized the description, and he cut himself off with a laugh. “Of course he'd wield two legendary weapons in a lifetime,” he managed, smiling. “That's so like my brother.”

“Wait, legendary? Wow. That's… impressive.”

A young, forgettable-faced girl walked by then, blithely asking in stunted English for a photograph.

Loki shot her a look. “Do you mind?” he hissed.

She stopped, startled, and retreated to Norwegian for her answer—something about how she was sorry, she's just a big fan, and won't it be so cool to show her friends a picture of her and Tony Stark? Loki didn't catch most of it, to be honest.

“We,” he tersely continued, “are talking here.” He finished with an obscure and somewhat obscene threat, just to drive the point home.

“Lokes—”

“Stark. Hi.” Loki shooed the woman with a wave of his hand; she gave a nervous giggle and hurried off. “You didn't actually intend on a picture, did you? Acknowledge one and the rest come swarming. You know that.”

“Okay, well, I could have politely declined,” Tony said. “Also, what was up with that whole one-sided conversation thing?”

“Universal translation spell. She heard me in her native language and you heard me in yours. It's too complicated to fully explain right now. Don't worry about it.”

“Oh.”

“So, is Thor still here?”

“No, he left as soon as he dropped me off. Why?”

“I'd rather not teleport across the ocean a second time.”

Tony immediately took out his phone.

For about a minute, there was nothing; Thor had yet to acquire any modern means of communication, and contacting him remained endlessly complex as ever. Tony dialed and redialed several different numbers in a row, hung up a few times, was hung up on a few more. Loki could almost see the growing frustration in his otherwise deadpan expression.

It wasn't until eight calls later that Tony finally found some success. Loki waited.

Another minute passed.

“No answer?” Loki asked.

“No, he's there,” Tony said away from the mic. “He just won't stop talking.”

“Tell him to shut up and get over here.”

“What? No.”

“Oh, sorry, tell him I said to shut up and get over here.”

Tony sighed. “Loki, uh—he said to shut up and get over here.”

“I would have used more force, but I'll accept that.”

“Uh-huh.” Tony rolled his eyes and lowered the phone. “Okay, he's coming.”

“Great! In the meantime…” Loki summoned the jar once more and gave a cheeky grin. “You really need to try one.”

 

Chapter Text

Tony never did try the fish. He said he would try one later, again, and Loki left it at that, knowing it would likely never come to a later.

The axe's bridge was no more disorienting than Loki's last unstructured usage of the Bifröst; in fact, it might have been even less so. Still, he couldn't recommend it. The magic left an odd taste in his mouth and he had to cushion himself and Tony upon their landing outside the compound, and the trip itself was a little too like free-falling for comfort. He decided to stick to his own warps, regardless of personal expense.

Tony muttered something about unnecessary paranoia and proceeded to calmly and indiscreetly pick the main doors' lock (which was electric and shouldn't have been so easily pickable—Mr. Stark, everyone) while Loki watched with a sly, almost approving smile. Thor wasn't interested; he waited for him to finish and was the first inside, gone by the time they entered not a few seconds later.

Tony stopped the instant he breached the doorway, and Loki stopped with him, both eyebrows raised, and listened to his hollow, mewling, “Shit.”

There, poised across from the doors, arms taut against her chest and a flat expression on her face, was Pepper—Potts, Stark, he couldn't remember; he wasn't even sure where he knew her from, if they'd ever been introduced in the first place. For all his expertise in reading people, he had no idea what she was feeling.

“Shit,” Tony said again. “Shitfuckshit I am so sorry, I just completely forgot—”

“Yeah, hi,” Pepper said, her voice as dry as the aspiring smile on her lips. “Were you still busy?”

“Yes,” Tony firmly responded. “Yes, I was busy. I had tons going on all since dinnertime yesterday and I didn't have time to call and—okay, I'm not busy anymore. Hi. It's very nice to see you in person and not as a name in my texts.”

“Smooth,” Loki said, fighting a snicker.

“Shut up,” Tony hissed.

“What was so important,” Pepper asked, “that you were busy for three days? What, the battle, that's done. Thanos? He's dead. Wait—”

“Things,” Tony abruptly answered. “Stuff. I got distracted. I was… half-busy. Probably could have come over, but there was just so much and—”

“Wait,” Pepper said, louder, and Loki stiffened slightly as she looked at him. Upset and some other thing, he realized now, that vague, emotionless expression, and the other thing, the worse thing, was recognition, clear as day. He wasn't wearing plates and horns, which he knew were all that stuck out in most people's memories, and he wasn't as sickly, and his hair, if there was any grease on it, was still comfortably tied high on his head, but she'd paid more attention than the common folk to his appearance, it seemed. Of course she had.

He smiled amiably and braced himself for the storm.

“Is that—” She broke off, blinked, and hardened her stare. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Stab-happy Norse god?” Tony suggested. “Unfortunately, yeah.”

“Hey.” Loki glared at him.

“What the fuck, Tony?”

“Alright, I have a perfectly good explanation if you'll let me—”

“A good explanation. For bringing the man that tried to kill you?”

“Yes! Yes, a very good explanation—look, he's not trying to kill me right now, isn't that something?—and basically everyone I know has tried to kill me anyway and I'll explain everything to you if you calm down, thanks and I love you and I'm glad you're concerned but I've had a long morning”—Tony breathed in—“and I have a good reason, okay? I know what I'm doing.”

Pepper seemed unconvinced. She made no attempts to argue, however.

“I think I'm going to leave,” Loki said, continuing to the stairs, “before it gets too awkward in here.” Or, as he knew, the politely subtle permission he was giving them to discuss him, because he could almost hear the brewing lecture. “Good luck.” He waved and then disappeared up the steps.

A few seconds passed in utter silence.

“What, exactly, distracted you?” Pepper asked.

“Loki,” Tony said. He walked over and joined her by the wall. “I thought you were going to ask what I was doing with him, first. No?”

“You never told me how the battle on Titan ended,” she said.

“And the answer to that is also… Loki. Everyone thought he was dead, turns out he faked it, and then he came in last minute to deal the final blow and some very choice words. Man, you should have seen it. Zero mercy.”

“So he killed Thanos?”

“Beautifully. Actually, I can pull up the transcript if you want it—his vengeance speech, I mean.”

“No, thanks.” She paused. “Vengeance?”

“Battle of New York,” Tony said. “2012. He's not completely innocent and it doesn't look like he's claiming to be, but apparently, most of that was Thanos. Which brings me to the other thing. I don't know the full story, how much was really him and how much was, you know, genuine anger and wanting to rule the world or something like that, but Loki? He was tortured into it. How long, I have no idea, but as far as I can tell, it was physical, and it seriously messed him up.”

Another pause. “He looks… healthy,” Pepper said.

“He looks healthy!” Tony agreed. “He actually looks healthy now. I know. That difference is just—looking back, you can tell there was something awful happening behind the scenes. ”

Pepper didn't respond. She took a moment, nodded slowly, faintly, and, although it was obvious by now, she again asked, “What distracted you?”

“I think he has PTSD,” Tony plainly answered.

“Loki?”

“Yeah. Two flashbacks since Titan. Bad ones.” Tony hesitated. “I'm really worried about him.”

“Oh.”

“'Oh'?”

“I get it,” Pepper said. “Somewhat. I, um—I don't trust him. I believe the PTSD thing, though, and I get you being worried about him. You know what you're doing.”

“I'm still keeping my distance,” Tony said. “That's what you're wondering, right? I can't see him trying anything, but I haven't dropped my defences. I'm good. We're good. I'll run if something goes wrong.”

“I know.”

Tony made to leave then, only for Pepper to grab his arm, swing him around, and press a long, hard kiss on his lips. She didn't let go until their oxygen died, and Tony gave her a delighted, lopsided grin as she pulled away.

“You owe me a dinner,” she said, and then turned and went upstairs. He followed her.

Back in the lounge, Tony found Loki and Thor seated together in one of the couches, chatting about nothing. Loki's hair was still in a bun, but his unassuming sweater and slacks had been replaced by the leather armour he'd become so fond of. Steve Rogers was nowhere to be seen. Tony wanted to be relieved; when he considered their last interaction, though (him edging into Steve's room that night to ask how he was, only to leave a minute later when he refused to speak, refused to even look up from his pillows), all that came to mind was concern. How much Loki had showed him was unclear, but Tony imagined—hoped?—that it was far less than what was there, tucked away in his memories. He wondered, then, if Steve's behaviour was more guilt than shock—extreme, debilitating guilt, the kind hallmarked by him. Wishful thinking, most likely, but it didn't hurt.

Loki spared a smile as Tony sat in the adjacent couch, with Pepper next to him. Tony returned the smile. Pepper didn't bother.

“It's quiet today,” she remarked.

“Everyone's out searching for what remains of Asgard,” Loki said.

“'What remains'?”

Loki nodded. “We lost the land, and we were all living on a ship when he—Thanos, when he—when he came for us. He didn't…”

“He didn't intend on leaving survivors,” Thor finished.

Loki swallowed, slipped him a frustrated but thankful look, and said, “There were some. Earth was the closet safe destination, so they all came here. We're trying to reunite everyone and… maybe find a new home in the meantime.”

“How come you're not with them?” she asked—genuine concern, from what Loki could tell, but the question seemed almost accusing.

“Thor's heading out,” he said. “I'm… I have things to do here.”

Pepper was about to interject when Tony elbowed her. She sighed and instead asked, “So you saved the world?”

“I think so, yes,” Loki said.

“Should I thank you?”

“You can. It would be nice, but you don't need to.”

“Thanks for saving the world.”

Loki smiled. “You're welcome.”

“Hey,” Tony said, “is it okay if Lokes and I talk for a bit? Alone? I need to get something out of the way.”

“Now?” Pepper asked.

“Now, yeah. It's not urgent, but the sooner, the better.”

“We've been together for five minutes.”

“I know,” Tony said, raising his hands. “I know. And I still need to make it up to you.”

“You definitely do, yeah.”

“I definitely will. Eventually.”

“Tonight.”

“Tonight, yes, we are going to…” Tony stopped, his face locked in deep, jokingly intense deliberation; Loki stifled a laugh. “We're going to watch a terrible movie and fall asleep on the couch.”

“No fancy dinner?” Pepper asked.

“No, I'm not really feeling it today. Tomorrow? Soon, anyway. We'll get to that. Tonight is couch movie night.”

“Deal.”

Loki smiled again, weaker, bitter, almost, and stood. Whatever they were meant to discuss—yesterday's incident, presumably—he wasn't too keen on it. Still, he followed Tony out of the room, no question, listening to Thor's fading voice as he began one of the last good stories he had of them as brothers, and then to nothing when the hallway killed the rest of the sound.

“Where to?” Loki asked, matching Tony's pace.

“My room.”

“Oh?”

“Loki, I am begging you, do not make this weird. It's a nice private place for a nice private discussion and that's all it is.”

“I see,” Loki said, and then resorted to silence for the remainder of the trip—but not before a soft, smug little chuckle to himself. Tony ignored him.

Now, the dorms: the handful of Avengers who had taken up permanent residence in the compound made their homes in one of about a dozen suites prepared, Loki had gathered, shortly after the building was converted. The rooms were identical in most respects: all naturally well-lit, mostly open-concepts, with a kitchen, bathroom, and a living room alongside the bedroom. What he already suspected, though, was that through some architectural misfortune or another, his was the smallest, which was also why, he suspected, it remained the unofficial guest room—all from what he had picked up on, anyway; whatever room Peter had borrowed seemed an accurate enough means of comparison. Loki didn't mind, to be honest. It was… quaint. He just found it odd, if somewhat insulting.

Through the same kind of handout's happenstance (which Loki was convinced had been planned), Tony's room was the largest, coming to the rough equivalent of about three or so normal ones put together, although the large and extremely haphazard tinkering area in the living room trimmed the number to something more like one and a half. It took up most of the floor space and was in desperate need of sorting, in Loki's opinion. Other than the size, the only difference was what he assumed was a stocked kitchen—that, and the medium-quiet, uninterrupted stream of classic rock from the speakers. If he'd ever learned the band, he couldn't remember the name.

“I'm not turning it off,” Tony said, closing the door behind them. “Just to be clear.”

“Did you hear any objections?”

“Nope. Pre-emptive warning.”

Tony swung into the kitchen then and grabbed a cup. Loki, meanwhile, sat backwards in the sofa, arms crossed on the backrest, and asked, “Why speak with me alone?”

“Because,” Tony said, “you're too proud to have this conversation while someone else is listening. First thing I noticed about you, Lokes: your ego is even bigger than mine.”

“How very astute of you.” Loki leaned into one elbow's crook. “So this is about yesterday.”

“Yep.” Tony paused, slid the cup under the tap and switched the cold water on. A momentary flurry of goosebumps wracked Loki, and he shivered once, a small part of him unsure he'd even felt it, and pushed his chin deeper into his elbow. “Here's what I'm going to do,” Tony said, twisting the knob back off. “I'm going to set some hard rules, which I shouldn't have to do in the first place because most of them fall under, like, general decency, and I figured everyone here had the common sense to follow them.”

“It seems you figured wrong,” Loki said.

“Yeah, how dare I assume adults won’t randomly bring up traumatic memories?” Tony snorted and downed the water in one go, ten seconds during which the song faded and was replaced by the long, ethereal opening of a gloomy ballad. He set the cup down. “That one especially—definitely not turning it off.”

“And I'm still not complaining,” Loki said. “What kind of rules, exactly?”

Tony numbered them on his fingers: “Don't intentionally remind people of shitty things that have happened to them,” he said, raising one. Another: “Don't intentionally remind people of shitty things they've done. And”—he raised a third finger—“don't be a shitty person to people because of those things. Like I said, common sense.”

“Common sense isn’t all that common.”

“I noticed.”

Loki sat up, straightened his shoulders. “Are you not going to join me?” he asked.

“Nah. Feels more casual like this, less like one of us is going to jump the other.” Tony poured himself another inch of water and looked up. “Y'know?”

“I do.”

“Yeah, you get it.”

While Tony drank the shot's worth of water, Loki pulled one of his hands free and summoned a blank sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen on the counter, green shimmer and all, and then returned to his chin-on-elbows-on-backrest position. Tony looked at the paper, at him, and copied down what he'd just said. The notes went in his pocket; the pen—

“Throw it,” Loki said, seeing his conflicted expression, and held up the same hand.

“I don't think—”

“Throw it.”

Tony tossed the pen back in a wide arc, and Loki snatched it out of the air between two fingers, deftly, lightning-fast.

“Lucky throw?” Tony asked, a slight bewilderment in his voice.

“Practice,” Loki said. “A thousand years of it.”

“And that enabled you to catch a pen thrown to you from, uh, what is this? Ten metres away?”

“Yes? Ten metres is nothing. Farthest I've caught something is probably—” Loki stopped, squinted in thought. “A thousand. Maybe more, maybe less. Far, anyway.”

“Okay, so your catching is ridiculously overpowered. How's your throw?”

“Depends what I'm throwing. If we're talking knives, then a hundred metres, easily.”

“How?”

“Practice.”

Tony looked like he was about to say something—“Bullshit,” maybe. He said nothing, though.

“Practice,” Loki said, “and good reflexes, and good muscle. That's all.”

“Uh-huh. Okay.” Tony cleared his throat. “So Nat and Bruce will definitely be on board. Thor… also definitely on board. Pete’s good too. And Bucky—uh, tall, dark, and handsome fellow you always see with Steve—he’ll side with us for sure. The rest… probably only if I don’t mention it’s because of you. Though,” he added under his breath, “they’ll probably figure it out pretty easy.”

“Right, because I'm obviously undeserving of basic decency. Tell me something I don’t know.”

An eyebrow raised. “That better be sarcastic, Lokes, or so help me.”

“Of course, Tony.”

There was a split-second realization between both of them then: somehow, for some reason, Stark had been dropped and replaced with a first name. Whether it was a sign of trust or he'd merely merely been deemed nonthreatening enough to permit a friendlier address, Tony couldn't tell, and neither could Loki, to be honest. Whatever the case, it didn't matter; either one meant a little more peace than before, and any questioning would be jinxing it.

“You're staring,” Loki said.

“I was trying to imagine what your hair looks like without all that grease.”

“If you're not laughing yet”—Loki adjusted the still-present bun, almost instinctively—“you're doing it wrong.”

Tony considered for a few seconds what could possibly be so amusing. Then, just as the guitar in the background crested, he gasped and whispered, “Goth Merida.”

“Who?”

“Oh my God, okay, so the main character in this one movie—Pete made me watch it once because of course he did—she has this outrageously poofy hair that's like, half her body mass, right, except it's red, not black, so—”

“Goth Merida,” Loki said, nodding.

“Goth Merida.”

“Right.” Loki paused. “I still don't know why you're doing this for me. I mean, again—I threw you out of a window, on my own accord and with the intent to kill. That you don't hold a grudge against me, at least personally, is…”

“Crazy?” Tony offered. “Yeah. I know. And,” he added, “I agree. I have no reason to care about you this much. None. Mostly I just feel indebted after what you did on Titan. And that's without the truce, by the way.”

“I appreciate that,” Loki said, “but I don't think it's necessary.”

“No, shut up. I owe you, okay? You just saved the friggin' world, for crying out loud. Not only is that impressive as hell and officially makes you the coolest person ever, it's also a really good grounds for a second chance.”

“It was one man.”

“Yeah, one man who was going to destroy half the universe if you hadn't stepped in. Jeez, I was just pointing out your ginormous ego and now you're acting like all that wasn't a big deal? Did I miss something?”

Loki frowned. “I don't think everyone will agree with your rules.”

“They fucking better,” Tony snapped. “I mean, it's not just you. Almost all of us are at least a little traumatized over something, and if someone else can't get with that, they better find a way, because I don't need a repeat of yesterday. Don't go thinking you need to dig up that kind of shit every time someone doesn't believe you.”

And then there were the legalities of it all, Loki remembered, and his frown deepened. He wondered if he ought to just leave, then, and be done, because even if everyone here got over that, even if they somehow forgave him entirely and maybe even forgot what had happened, he was still, at the end of the day, a war criminal. As much as he hated to quote Captain America, facts were facts.

Tony refilled the cup and chugged it.

“Some respect for your bladder, perhaps?” Loki suggested, half-joking.

“None. I'm thirsty and there's no coffee. Hence.”

Loki didn't bother replying. He turned and sat properly, distractedly eyeing the streets beyond the window, and the grassy border of the compound lot beside them. Behind him, he heard Tony getting more water.

Laws. Laws didn't generally acknowledge the existence of superheroes, supervillains, and any matter of chaos that occurred as a result of the two's interactions, both with each other and with the rest of the populace. This was fine until the inevitable slew of moral dilemmas that followed, such as whether or not saving the world was an acceptable reason to forgive prior endangerment of millions of civilians. (It was; he and Tony had agreed on that much.) And it didn't matter why it had happened, what the driving force had been—didn't matter that there was a year of pain and anger bottled up inside him, that he'd had a very large and very intimidating sentient prune breathing down his neck. The law didn't care.

Laws, as Loki usually maintained, were a universally stupid thing to be argued with whenever possible. There were too many moral dilemmas in the world for rigidity.

“Hey, you better not be thinking it,” Tony called from the kitchen.

Loki turned slightly. “Thinking what?”

“That you need to dig up that shit every time someone doesn't believe it's there.”

“What? No.”

Tony walked over and stood in front of the sofa. “You're thinking it,” he said. “Right now.” He motioned towards him with the cup, which still had some water inside. “I can feel it.”

“I'm doing no such thing,” Loki said.

“You're not? Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Tony drank the rest of the water. “So you're telling me with absolute certainty that you won't hit anyone here with your memories again, ever, at any point after this conversation.”

“Exactly that, yes.”

“Oh. Well, good. Because from now on, you may consider me your personal trauma fairy, here to protect you from putting yourself through more fucked up shit because of”—Tony waved his free hand—“some inconsiderate asshole who, uh, doesn't understand that you are, in fact, worthy of basic fucking decency, and that not everything that comes out of your mouth is a fucking lie, like—like that you were tortured, for Chrissake. Do I need to swear more, or am I clear enough?”

“No, I understand,” Loki said, smiling.

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“I'm gonna pretend I didn't notice you rolling your eyes.”

“Me? Never.” Except he had, and they both knew, and Loki's smile turned into a brief, barely-there chuckle. “I think,” he said, “we should go make sure Thor isn't getting into the embarrassing stories.”

“Oh, right, your ego!” Tony exclaimed, mock urgency on his face. “I totally forgot.” He dashed into the kitchen, chucked the cup in the sink, and then dashed out the door.

Loki stared, dazed. Then he laughed again, a real, solid laugh, and stood, and went after him.

 

The universe's nature was such that it tended towards misery and misfortune—and, in accordance with that, bad news accompanied good news like nothing else. Loki couldn't be surprised if he tried.

The good news was that Thor hadn't embarrassed him, as he occasionally did when left rambling too long. It was much the opposite, in fact; when the words to his first tale ran out, he'd switched to one of Loki's own favourites. This one involved him physically besting a group of well-known tyrants using only his wits and the surrounding environment, which, as it happened, had been a fine tavern in the lower edge of the city. Between his well-placed irritation that day and their status as royalty, he and Thor never needed to pay a single coin to drink there ever again. That was centuries ago, and they both still agreed it was one of the better definitions of mischief as it relating to him.

The bad news took a moment. Right as they came back into the room, so did Steve, seemingly for no other reason than to clear his head—and it shouldn't have been bad news; it should have been good, great news, because it meant he was feeling better. Bad news was easy to tell, though, and the bad news here was that he wasn't: he was still just as sluggish and dishearteningly quiet as they had left him, crushed under the weight of the more-than-memories. He glanced once at Tony, at Loki, said nothing, and then sat in the far end of the room. Neither of them attempted any further interaction.

Loki felt no guilt; he felt a scrap of unsympathetic pity and that was it. Steve, he knew, would likely be fine within weeks, even days, because while the memories had been among the more painful ones, while they had been enhanced and then forced upon him, they were just memories—foreign, secondhand memories, at that, which could never even hope to live up to the source. If this was anything like most such transfers, all Steve would remember come the next month, two months, whatever, was the idea. He would remember the pain's imprint, and more than that, he would remember a message: “Mistake my lies for truths as frequently and as powerfully as you'd like, but don't ever mistake my truths for lies.” (Boy who cried wolf came to mind; Loki didn't care. For all the falsehoods he breathed, he was excruciatingly honest when he needed to be, and any claims otherwise had never and would never sit well with him.)

From Tony, Steve would remember another: “Do not mess with Loki, because he has gone through some shit and he won't hesitate to bring that shit upon you, Captain America—so don't fuck with him, understand? No one fucks with him and gets away with it.”

Loki could practically hear that one.

He sighed and sat across from Pepper and Thor, who were still wrapped up in the story, and listened as they got to the ending. After a moment, Tony joined him.

“Maybe,” Tony began, “maybe we should just… head out for now. All of us.” He looked over the couch at Steve. “It might do some good.”

“Unlikely,” Loki said. “All he'll do is dwell.” And let him, Loki almost added, but he held his tongue. “He'll do that regardless, though, won't he?”

“Probably. I'd take him with us, but… well, yeah, that's not gonna work. Jeez, Lokes,” Tony muttered. “Maybe you should—”

“I've considered it. It might be best. If he lets me, anyway. I don't think he will. But I can try.”

“Okay. Okay, that's good. Just try. That's good enough. I just can't stand seeing him like this, and I know—”

“I'm petty and it was the best way to get him to shut up,” Loki calmly interjected.

“Yeah.” Tony coughed an awkward chuckle. “Thor,” he said, turning towards him. “I hear the search is going well. I would love to meet your people.”

“I'll come,” Loki said. “I need to make sure someone I healed is still alive.”

“Two of us, great! Pepper, you should totally join. Please. I'm going stir-crazy in here.”

“Weren't you just outside?” she asked.

“In Norway, no less,” Loki added, smiling slightly. “Don't be so dramatic, Tony.”

“Shut up,” he said again, but there was no anger in his voice.

Loki shrugged and left the room.

Thor finished the story moments later, and he stood and followed. Pepper went after him. After a long few seconds of silence, after looking at Steve once more and seeing no reaction, Tony did the same.

 

Chapter Text

There were twenty-seven known Asgardians left in the universe; twenty-nine if Thor and the nameless Valkyrie were included; thirty if Loki counted himself, and he didn't. The camp in front of him, which had been hastily thrown together in a small clearing not ten minutes' walking distance from the compound, held eight, as well as several Avengers scattered throughout.

He felt utterly out of place.

Pepper was off introducing herself with Thor, and Tony had been delayed by something or other, so it was just him in that corner of the field. He did not want to be here, he decided; he wanted to find Svala's mother and leave, go back to his room or otherwise and ignore the rest of the day like he'd been doing thus far. The way things tended to work out, though, and it was really becoming a problem lately, there was no point entertaining that train of thought—or the next one, probably, but that one kept roaring along its tracks regardless.

He had neither a right nor reason to be there, his mind claimed, because he wasn’t really an Avenger, and because Asgard wasn't really a home. It stopped being one years ago. When his lineage came out, when his misdeeds started piling too high, didn't matter; all he knew was that by the time it burned, he couldn't bring himself to care. It was a long-term residence, not a home, and he drifted too much for homes, anyway. The people were the same: he grew up with them and loved them all with utmost fervency, but he didn't consider them his. He didn’t consider anyone his people.

The idea, he supposed, was that he wasn’t obliged to help—except it was a horrid attempt on his mind’s part, because he still cared a hell of a lot about Thanos's rampage. He was callous, but not that callous. Seeing proof of that number nearly sent him into another attack.

Tony touched down a short distance from him. “This place looks like a slum,” he remarked, shedding his suit. “Might as well have cleared some storage space in the compound and moved everyone there.”

Loki nodded ambivalently. The camp was little more than several wall tents set up in one end, a pile of metal crates in the other, and various items strewn between. It was a far cry from both Asgard and the Statesman, but it served its purpose. He'd made do with far worse, he almost responded, and he almost drew blood biting his tongue. It wasn't worth Tony's reaction.

“How do you rebuild something like this?” Loki asked instead.

“You find somewhere to put it first,” Tony answered, hoisting himself onto a crate. “Easier said than done, considering the entire planet's been claimed.”

Another nod from Loki. “That's usually how it is.”

“So we have two options,” Tony said. “We try and go the country route and fail spectacularly, or we go the city route, which would be infinitely less complicated. It's a pretty big leap from what you had, though.”

“Maybe so,” Loki said, “but does it really matter?”

“Does it? You tell me.”

“I don't care. I don't think anyone else does, either. We're alive. We're safe. If Asgard is never recognized as anything more than a group of people ever again, that's just as well.”

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.” Tony paused. “This whole thing is just… a mess.”

“I know,” Loki said. He climbed up to sit beside him. “You'll figure something out.”

“Probably. But anyway, I'm getting people denying Thor's a king because of this—and he is, he's totally a king in my book, a rad, sparkly king—and then that's undermining his hypothetical vouching for you, which is ridiculous—I mean, he's Thor—and it's all—okay, you get my point. Laws are dumb.”

“I'm with you on that,” Loki said, smiling. “Hypothetical?”

“No one's actually mentioned your situation yet,” Tony explained. “Not in detail. It was brought up maybe once and since then we've heard nothing, I guess because everyone's too busy following their stupid books or whatever, and no one wants to bring it up again because then that means a greater chance that somewhere, some military is going to get antsy about you being on Earth—never mind that you're under the Avengers' watch—and go all ballistic on you. And us. Mostly you. Seriously, just having you outside right now is risky. I don't know why I'm allowing it.”

“I'm too stubborn to be kept inside,” Loki said. “If it'll make you feel better, I could disguise myself.”

“You shouldn't have to!” Tony cried, almost indignantly. “Come on. You weren't yourself back then. I'm getting a second look at you now and I can say that with total confidence. And you were—you said it yourself—you were forced into all that, weren't you?”

For one brief, deeply discomforting moment, saying yes seemed like lying. The voices in Loki's head were restless again, screaming guilt and shame and don't pretend it wasn't you out there, and it almost got to him.

Almost.

He breathed in. Breathed out. It still felt like a lie, but it slipped out a little easier this time: “Of course.”

“Okay, look, I'm not a lawyer, I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm about ninety-percent sure that means, on some level, you can't be held completely responsible for what you did. Jeez, I'm rambling,” Tony muttered, pressing his hands to his face. “This has nothing to do with Asgard, I'm sorry.”

“Don't be,” Loki said. “Keep working on it. You seem determined enough. In the meantime, I'm going to see who's here.” With that, he pushed himself off the crate and made for the tents.

For all of the camp's disarray, the provided shelters were supremely high quality. And they were open; he not-so-cautiously peered inside each one. Three were empty, while the others had beds and miscellaneous personal belongings. He hummed a vague acknowledgment to himself and continued through the field.

“You mentioned you were looking for someone in particular,” Tony said, coming up behind him.

“A girl and her mother,” Loki answered, not looking away from the mingle of people. “I healed the latter a few days ago. I'm fairly certain it worked, but I'd like to make sure.”

“You didn't strike me as the healer type.”

“I'm not. I know some spells, but I don't exactly practice them. That's why I need to check.”

“Ah. Hey, worst-case scenario, how do you feel about me just buying everyone a house in, I don't know, Norway? One of the nicer cities, maybe. It's Asgardy, you clearly like it there—”

“Yes,” Loki said. “Yes, that would work. And now that I think of it, I was told to remember that place, just before Ragnarök. He… Father, he must have known we'd be looking for a new home. That? That's a perfect home. I like it, he surely liked it, and it does bear a lot of similarities to Asgard. I think we should keep it in our sights. If we could settle along the coast…”

“That's best-case,” Tony said.

“We'll find a way. And if we don't, I still don't care. We lost everything. A cave would work at this point.”

“Okay, come on, you don't want a cave.”

“I don't need one.” Loki tossed a smug grin over his shoulder. “I have the Avengers to mooch off of.”

“Don't get used to it,” Tony said.

“You're not going to remove me, are you?”

“Me? Nah. But someone else might want to.”

Loki smiled again. “You won't let them.”

Tony didn't try to object.

Loki stopped walking then, eyes trained on the little girl Pepper was chatting with. Goodness, he'd barely remembered the face. Sharp chin, round cheeks, golden curls around it all; that was her, alright. He quietly moved into their periphery and waited to be noticed, which earned an amused chuckle from Tony.

Svala glanced their way a moment later, and she stared, eyes wide, and then ran over. “I missed you,” she said, hugging Loki at the waist.

“Hello to you too,” he said, returning the embrace as best as he could. “I was only gone for a few days. Don't get so attached.”

“I thought you were dead.” Her eyes grew even wider at the word.

“You know I can't be killed so easily.”

She pulled away and looked behind him. “Who's this?”

“Tony Stark, hi.” He waved.

“One of Midgard's great heroes,” Loki said, a slight smirk creeping across his lips.

“And great engineers,” Tony added.

“And great engineers, yes. He's not so good at being humble, you see.”

Tony snickered. “Neither are you.”

“Oh, well—” Loki gave a laugh of his own. “You're not wrong.” He allowed himself a second to calm down and then looked back at Svala, casually asked, “How's your mother, by the way? I didn't see her here.”

“Amazing!” Svala said. “The scar's barely visible.”

“See, Lokes? Don't doubt yourself so much.”

“I'll doubt myself as I please, Tony.

“Loki,” Svala suddenly said, “you’re here to help, right?”

His words abandoned him. No, he almost said, and were it not for his sense of tact overriding his instincts, he would have. He didn't want to help; he felt responsible, guilty, even, and maybe it would have reduced the shame to stay and assist, but the thought ached him. He wanted blissful ignorance. He wanted to leave and pretend everything was fine, that these weren't the last of Asgard, that there had never been any of the death and destruction burned so recently into his memory. It would have been easier on his heart.

The look in Svala's eyes was the only reason Loki didn't immediately say no. Rather, he said the same thing he said to Tony: “Of course.”

Svala grinned, and he awkwardly matched her. The lie was embarrassingly cheap, but it seemed to do the trick. At least for her. It must have been how long he hesitated—and it was what, two, three seconds?—because Tony somehow saw right through it; the disappointment was written on his face. Loki almost wanted to explain just so he'd stop glaring at him like that. It wasn’t his fault that he felt no genuine desire to help resettle the place, and anyway, he was trying. That was worth something, wasn't it?

If Tony noticed his discomfort, it wasn’t obvious. Loki brushed past him and said, “Well, come on. Let’s go help.”

Tony didn't follow, and for a short instant, it seemed like he wouldn't. Then he apologized and excused himself, and ran up to match Loki's stride.

 

For that entire minute that it took to cross the camp, they didn't speak. From Tony, there were uneasy glances and almost-words, looks like he wanted to say something and didn't know how, while Loki just walked, neither a purpose nor a destination in mind. He didn't need one. He just wanted to leave.

They were another minute out of the camp when the sky clouded over with no warning, and there was a long, terrifying moment where Loki couldn't tell if it was Thor sensing something was wrong or simply the universe playing a grand joke on him. It was still warm—warm by his standards, anyway—and it wasn't raining, thankfully, so he wasn't upset; he was only worried that he had begun to slip, that his emotions were somehow seeping through his lies, that he would invoke more outside concern. He didn't want to be responsible for all that, same as he didn't want to disappoint Svala. It was too much.

He expected Tony to mention the knowing look they'd shared, but there was nothing. Three full minutes of painful silence went by before, instead of mentioning the knowing look, Tony said, “You don't want to be here, do you?”

Loki stopped walking.

He turned, head inched thoughtfully to one side, and peered over Tony’s shoulder. When he was sure they were alone in the field, he smiled a nonchalant smile and said, “No. But I do want to help.”

“No, you don't.”

Loki opened his mouth, realized he couldn't answer, and then pressed it shut once more. “I don’t,” he said, nodding, unable to articulate the truth: yes, he wanted to help; he just couldn't. It killed him just to be here. “What do you want me to say?”

“I guess a reason would be nice,” Tony offered, absentmindedly putting on a pair of sunglasses with one hand. “I’m just curious. Feel free to ignore me.”

There were too many reasons for Loki to count. He knew Asgard stressed him, he didn’t know why, and he also knew that his last give-a-damn regarding the place had mysteriously vanished years ago—hence the inability to invest himself any deeper than making sure everyone was alive. He knew that seeing how inadequate he'd been in fighting the attack made him want to scream, and that he tended to avoid discomforts, and as such, he would rather keep his distance regarding the repairs and rescues. “I'm tired,” he could have said; “I don't have the strength.” That was all it was. It was a more than fair answer, but it was just vague enough that Tony would immediately go psychologist and call it the result of centuries of losses or something similarly overdramatic, and good luck convincing him that it was just run-of-the-mill apathy with no real explanation other than Loki preferred to give no shits.

(And that was false, of course; the problem was that he cared too much. He could use some apathy.)

Tony was still waiting.

“I don't like the responsibility,” Loki said.

(hypocrite)

“That's it?”

(it doesn’t mean as little to him as it does to you)

“That's it. I'm not much of an attachments person.”

Tony resumed walking; so did Loki. “Same as before?”

“What, searching together? That didn't work and you know it.”

Tony took the sunglasses off. “I panic around you,” he said, thumbing the frame, checking for breaks or otherwise. “Not my fault.”

“I panic around you too!” Loki said. “I still trust you. At least, I'm trying to. You could do the same for me. What happened to me and Peter?”

“That was a one-time thing that I completely regret,” Tony said, hands raised. “Kid thought it was great, but at what cost?”

“You're escalating this,” Loki hissed, closing his eyes for a second. “Please don't escalate this.”

Something in Tony's expression mellowed then, and he lowered his hands to his waist, mindful of the glasses, and said, “Sorry. I didn't mean to. Do you actually want to go back? I'm okay with that. Just tell me.”

“Go back and do what, feel bad for not caring about Asgard?”

“Uh, yeah.”

Loki rubbed his hands together, looked away, looked back at Tony and said, “I'm not comfortable there.”

“Yeah, why would you be?” Tony snorted. “Place feels like you'll get lynched if you breathe wrong.”

“You feel that way,” Loki said, incredulous. “You?”

“It's… a long story. We had a bit of a falling-out a while back and never quite recovered. You know how it is.”

“Oh, I know exactly how it is.”

“Well, so—here’s the thing, though.” Tony re-equipped the glasses; in lieu of a crooked brow, Loki squinted inquisitively. “I still don’t trust you. And I'm trying, same as you, but—wow, I can't talk today—okay, I trust you enough to let you go off on your own, but I don’t trust you that much. Set locations for now. So you’re either there or here.”

“There.”

“Alright. Don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to, don’t talk to the Capsicle because I swear, he has been so close to flipping out on me the entire day and it’s the last thing any of us need, and if someone asks why you're loitering around the premises or something, tell them you live there for the foreseeable future and I sent you. And if the main doors are locked again for some reason and no one's there to buzz you in”—he sighed heavily—“you should be able to get them open with, uh, five, three, eight, nine, zero, eight, two, four. You get that?”

Loki nodded.

“Tell me if it doesn’t work. Thing's so unreliable,” Tony added under his breath, “it's easier to just pick the lock most days.” Pause. “Want a ride?”

“No. Absolutely not.”

Tony pocketed the glasses and smiled, sweetly, enticingly, Loki could tell, as the suit assembled around him. He left the headpiece off in favour of maintaining the grin. “You sure?”

“It’s a ten-minute walk.”

“Yeah, I just wanted to see if it would work. There’s a library and gym on the ground floor if you need them. Have fun. And seriously,” Tony added after another pause, “don’t break anything.”

“Keep saying that and I’ll blow up the building just to spite you.”

“Duly noted. See you later, kid.”

The rest of the armour formed and he flew off before any retort could be made, and Loki stared after him, less offended and more genuinely baffled by the number of kids in the past few days—and surprised by how he'd gotten away from everything so easily. He chose not to question it. He reached up to redo his bun, mostly unconsciously, and then turned invisible, double-checked that he was, in fact, invisible, and began walking in the opposite direction.

Loki didn't know why he bothered cloaking himself other than it unsettled him to imagine someone spotting him, realizing he was ditching again and disappointing Thor or Svala or Tony or whoever else. He knew it was dumb. He knew he was overreacting. Still, it didn't do any harm, so he stayed like that.

He cleared the spell once he was in front of the doors and strode up, glanced once over his shoulder, and tested the handle. There was no resistance. He let out a breath and entered.

The lobby was empty, as usual and as expected, and coupled with the present assumption that he had gone with Tony, the stillness made Loki feel an awful lot like he was trespassing. He did practically live here, and he had every right to loiter; even so, he couldn't rid himself of the unease.

He walked to the end of the lobby, where there was a large floor map framed on one of the walls. A rough look showed several sets of stairs, several elevators, and at least two dozen rooms, only some of which were labelled. The gym was one; the library was not. The largest unlabelled room, he surmised, was probably it. He stepped back from the map and oriented himself. Hallway to his right, door on the left. He glanced at the image again, just to make sure, and headed down.

The unidentified room was indeed the library, and it was as empty as the lobby. There was a long line of windows and chairs along the farthest wall, and a table in one of the corners; the rest of the room was rows of bookshelves, as anticipated. Loki quietly made his way through, looking at the numbers on the side and trying to remember which were what, and pulled out a random book: non-fiction, something about economics, and far too thick for such a topic. He slid it back into its spot and began reading spines.

Everything was non-fiction, by the looks of it, which wasn't very surprising; the Avengers probably didn't have time to bother with novels. That was fine. Loki stepped into the next aisle and read the spines there. World history. He browsed for a few seconds before taking out what claimed to be, despite its preposterous size and weight, A Brief History of the United States of America. Something like that would be more than enough to keep him interested, and if he was going to be reading, it might as well be something useful. Catching up on countries always worked.

Loki tucked the book under his arm and carried it with him to the lounge. He entered slowly, shoulders tensed and hands tight, and immediately relaxed when he saw that it was as deserted as everywhere else. Part of him had expected a confrontation—still was, if he was being honest. Even though he'd been promised safety, even though there was absolutely no reason to worry, he couldn't shake the feeling. His instincts, no matter what he knew, said run: enemy ground. It was unfounded, he told himself; he was reading a book, not sacrificing someone or whatever it was the Avengers thought he did in his free time. They could not attack him; they could not hurt him; there was a truce; and if things really did reach that point, he could and would run. Unfounded paranoia, he told himself once more, and tried to ignore it.

He set the book on a couch and paused, lost in thought, then stepped into the kitchen. A hot drink would serve him well. It probably wasn't a good idea, not here, not now, but it would serve him well. Hopefully, no one would object.

There was an electric kettle by the sink, and the view on the side showed there was enough water for a small cup of tea—smaller than he would have liked, but better than nothing. He flicked it on and began searching the pantries. In order, there were dried goods, cans, baking supplies, and an absurd quantity of spices. The second-last one had two tins of ground coffee and a dozen different teas. He grabbed a box without looking—pomegranate black tea—and retrieved a single bag, then returned the box. He got a plain, entirely unexceptional purple mug from the next pantry and set it on the counter, by the kettle, and watched and waited for the water to boil.

A minute passed. Loki saw a lone bubble rise and pop unceremoniously. He sighed.

Twenty more seconds passed.

The kettle stayed on shortly after boiling point and then shut off with a click, and Loki dropped the teabag in the mug, froze there, mind wandering again, and carefully took the kettle with both hands. He held it for a long, uncomfortable moment, breathed in, and tipped it at such a precise angle that the stream made no sound entering the ceramic; he'd practiced enough that it wasn't too hard. The mug took nearly another minute to fill like that, but it was a small price to pay, he figured. He left a centimetre of buffer before just as carefully straightening and docking the kettle.

He stared at the mug. Steam rose sluggishly from its depths. He waited for it to die, drifting in and out of focus for about a minute, and then took the mug by the handle. His fingers didn't stray once as he carried it to the couch; he didn't want a burn, of course. He also made sure he kept it firmly at his side when he sat down, away from the book. He never spilled drinks when reading: years of doing so had taught him the necessary coordination and reflexes. Still, he fretted over the possibility. It wasn't his to spill on, for one. And two—

He didn't want to spill.

Gingerly, with one hand, he lifted the book into his lap and began to read.

 

Chapter Text

Tony didn't know why he kept doing it.

Loki was not the same person he'd met six years ago. That much was clear; painfully, undeniably clear. He was politer, for one. He laughed at jokes. He didn't have that feral rage burning in his eyes. There was murder there the first time Tony looked at them: something wild, dark, itching to strike at any given moment. The look was gone now, and in the few days they'd been together, it hadn't appeared once. Even on Titan, even when he lashed out at Steve, there had been no trace of that reckless urgency. Loki had been calm, collected, nothing at all like he'd been spearheading the invasion, and yet—

And yet, at the end of the day, he was still Loki. He was still the man who nearly killed him, no matter how much Tony tried to deny it, and he was still the man who had taken his life and shattered it from the inside out, no matter how many years passed or how unintentional it had been. Tony could deny all of it. It didn't change a thing.

Loki was still himself, and Tony was still terrified of him. For all his wits, he couldn't understand why he kept doing him so many favours.

He landed on the roof of a skyscraper and pulled up the notes he'd made: transcriptions from his in-flight ramblings turned into more or less coherent graphs and tables. There was the total count, first and foremost: twenty-seven. It followed him wherever he went. That was how many Asgardians had escaped the ship when it was attacked, how many were believed to be alive—how many had been seen, anyway. Thor hadn't mentioned the numbers prior to the incident, so Tony couldn't really gauge anything, but he knew there were more survivors than twenty-seven. There had to be. Was he being too optimistic? Probably. He simply couldn't accept that such a vast society could be reduced to two digits.

Tony let the helmet melt away and sat on the building’s edge.

He thought about Loki. He wondered if he’d made a mistake leaving him completely on his own. Peter was there last time, and although Tony made it out like it was the opposite, sending them out together was more about making sure Loki didn't perform some atrocity than it was about Peter's safety; Peter could fend for himself just fine. There was no one now.

Tony wondered if Loki had even returned to the compound in the first place.

He could easily find out, of course. The new Avengers facility wasn’t nearly as heavily wired as the tower had been, but he had nonetheless claimed a substantial portion—some with FRIDAY, some with others, and all allowing him covert access to the most important parts. He set her up with the security cameras first, such that he could remotely view their footage from certain rooms as well as the Iron Man. Other things came as needed; the curtains in his room, for example, when he became too lazy to move them himself. He also tapped some of the walls in problem areas, areas where security cameras couldn’t reasonably be placed, and he knew how much of a privacy invasion something like that could be and made damn sure it was kept at a minimum: at most, it was a matter of FRIDAY telling him who was in the room at that moment; at least, he could converse with her from that area and that was it.

Loki's room, Tony absolutely loathed to admit, was tapped the day after Titan. He did so as soon as possible, which was approximately the very instant he found out Loki had left to clear his head post-breakfast, and he could learn in ten seconds if anyone was there now. The prospect felt shamefully intrusive, though. It always did.

A minute passed staring at the blur of traffic below.

Tony put the helmet back on and asked, with no hesitation, “Is Loki in the building?”

There was a brief pause. “He is,” FRIDAY answered.

That was all Tony needed to know. Still, he went ahead and also asked, “What's he doing?”

“Reading.”

“His room?”

“One of the common areas, actually. The only one anyone ever uses,” she clarified after a moment.

“Good to hear.”

“Don't tell me you're worried about him.”

“What? No. Hell no. I just don't want him causing any trouble.”

FRIDAY went silent, but not before Tony heard what was indisputably a faint, doubting giggle. He blushed, somewhat offended, and then stood and returned to the sky. He had more pressing matters to deal with.

Tony had tested Loki's additions to the scanners at the camp, and he had seen a perfect division between Asgardian and otherwise, so he had good faith it would detect any stragglers in the city. He still didn't know how Loki had managed it; there were no surface differences between the races, and scans based on anything subtler than what the eye could see were effectively impossible. So then, the question: had it been pure magic at work? Or was there some underlying technology he just didn't comprehend? Both were equally likely, and if it was the latter, it would be useful to know. He'd have to ask at some point.

Tony flew for about five minutes with no results.

They turned to ten. Fifteen. He didn’t feel them passing by.

In about twenty minutes, according to the clock in the corner of his view, he had crossed most of that half of the city. Nothing stuck out. Still, he diligently continued his search, because even nothing was valuable information: with some slight margin of error (those in buildings, the like) it meant they’d found all that could be found, and that meant that he could move on to other areas.

The consistent claim was that everyone had landed somewhere in North America, and based on what had been seen so far, he could expect clusters of up to five. Svala and her mother had been together, of course. The three women who had supposedly helped Loki reach Titan were somewhat more spread out, but they were still within the same several blocks. The others had been found similarly.

He really needed to learn their names.

Shortly after the half-hour mark, Tony began wondering if he could pull off a global scan based on such wide criteria. That would work best, and he’d considered it previously, but he hadn’t attempted it yet for mostly—

Practical reasons. Practical reasons, he kept telling himself, but it definitely wasn’t that. Years ago, they'd found Loki in no time flat with the same technology; a few Asgardians shouldn’t be much harder. If he figured out the exacts of what had been inputted into the suit, Tony would have everyone gathered in a week, at most—except again, everything that separated the two races was internal, and damn it, nothing was that precise. Was it magic after all?

No. There was something physical there; he just wasn't seeing it. He knew it.

Loki would have the answer.

That was the only problem. It was difficult enough convincing himself to let Loki tinker with the Iron Man, but the worst that could have happened with that was having the suit blow up. Chances were, Loki would need to redo the entire process on a computer, with access to a far greater range of machinery, and, to say the least, Tony found that just a little too perilous.

He knew that if Loki had anything planned, it probably would have been done on Titan, days ago, with the de-Thanosed Infinity Gauntlet. It would have been laughably easy to just grab it and run, and Loki hadn’t. Still, there was a creeping fear that even if he wasn’t so viciously desperate anymore, even if there wasn't someone threatening him and there wasn't that want for revenge and there wasn't whatever else had been the driving force, he might snap. Something might happen. He’d done a lot for them that couldn’t be placed within miles of malicious, such as wiping Peter’s memories of the battle and offering information on the displaced Asgardians. That should have been enough to trust him, but paranoia liked to rear its ugly head every time Tony thought that, claiming it was exactly what Loki wanted: to get them just off guard enough to strike.

The non-paranoia part of Tony thought it was completely unfair to think that. He would ask him today. He didn’t care.

Forty-two minutes after beginning the search, Tony received a call from Peter. He stared at the icon for a moment, surprised, then answered it. “Don't you have school right now?”

“Yeah, but class just ended,” Peter explained. “I've got five minutes or so.”

“Okay,” Tony said, unamused. “Why are you calling?”

“I wanted to ask if I could come by again.”

“Why are you asking me? Of course you can. As long as Aunt May knows.”

“Okay, thanks, Mr. Stark.”

“No problem.”

Peter hung up. Tony sighed and continued searching.

At ten minutes, Tony put on a playlist of his favourite songs, keeping it just quiet enough that he could still hear anything that needed to be heard, and at twenty-four, he suddenly remembered a dead promise to Pepper regarding a fancy dinner. He'd plainly forgotten in the chaos, and from what he could tell, so had she; still, he felt awfully guilty. He wondered if he could fit something in that night.

Tony flew like that for another hour, systematically scanning the city to the tune of old rock. He reached beyond the city, even, but save for what appeared to be a clown flash mob (classic New York) and someone robbing a corner store wearing a fursuit (also classic New York) he didn't see anything interesting, nor anything related to Asgard. The radar hadn't tripped once since the camp. He wasn't particularly surprised; manual rounds were hard to keep efficient, even with help like he had. Most of what he was doing at this point was just to make sure he wasn't being completely unproductive.

He gave up ten minutes later. He filed New York City under “probably empty, needs verifying” and then returned to the compound.

Tony's first instinct upon stepping out of the suit and into the building (it was unlocked, thankfully) was to check on Loki; his second was to take an alternate route to his workshop, avoiding the lounge entirely, and start figuring things out. Loki wasn't a child, and he certainly didn't need constant checking. Still, Tony made his way down, quietly, casually, not wanting to come off as pedantic. Hell, if Loki wasn't there, he'd just assume he was in his room and leave it. It didn't matter that much.

Whatever Tony expected when he walked into the lounge, it wasn't this.

Loki was there, alright: sprawled on the couch, eyes closed and a book face-down on his chest, with one hand pressed to the cover and the other brushing an empty mug on the floor. His breathing was so soft he could have been mistaken for dead. He looked peaceful enough.

Tony stared, mouth open, unsure how to react. Somehow, trust or lack of or otherwise, Loki had dared to be vulnerable, and he wasn't even comfortable letting him touch his things. He didn't know what to feel. Guilt came to mind.

Tony walked over and bent to take the mug, careful not to disturb Loki, and froze as there was a shift, a hitched breath, a moment where it seemed like he'd woken. Then the moment passed, and Tony soundlessly placed the mug in the dishwasher and sat in the adjacent couch. He pulled out his phone and asked, one by one, if anyone had found success. There were various answers, but none of them were especially positive, save for one wildly uncertain hypothesis about a possible landing site; he'd have to test it later.

He sighed and set the phone down.

Loki shifted again, and Tony looked his way, still expecting him to wake, but he remained in deep slumber. It was almost amusing how stubbornly he clung to sleep. Almost.

Tony leaned in, breath bated, and eased the book from under Loki's hand. He flipped it over and skimmed the pages, then closed it and placed it next to his phone. He looked at Loki again. The sleep twitches were still coming, and though they were neither frequent nor particularly powerful, he couldn't help but worry. He tried not to linger; instead, he stood and went to find something to eat.

Loki turned onto his side, towards the backrest. Tony pretended not to notice.

The only worthwhile items in the fridge were various condiments and someone's leftovers, and he didn't dare touch the latter. He closed the door, quietly, still overly careful not to wake Loki, and moved on to the pantries. There was rarely anything ready-to-eat in there, but it didn't hurt to check. He searched for a minute, found nothing, as expected, and then returned to the couch. There was no point staying. He could be in his lab, solving the details of his first priority, or his room, where there actually was food most of the time. But Loki—

Tony glanced at him again, expecting some movement, but nothing happened. He leaned back and continued weighing his options.

Several minutes passed in silence. Then there was the sound of footsteps down the hall, and Tony sat up just as Natasha turned the corner. He shot a finger to his lips. She stared, confused, then saw Loki and nodded.

“Anything?” Tony half-whispered.

“Nothing so far,” she answered, just as lightly. “Thor's got some ideas, but—”

“Right.”

Natasha took another look at Loki. “How long has he been like that?”

“I just got here,” Tony said. “Probably not long.”

Loki kicked out with one foot.

“Nightmare?” Natasha asked, sparing a frown.

“I don't know. He's been doing that a lot, but he's not freaking out or anything. Doesn't look like it, anyway.” Tony paused. “I was… going to ask him for help with something. I don't want to wake him up, though. He's been through a lot. Rest is always good.”

She gave a vague look akin to raising an eyebrow. “You're not uncomfortable around him?”

“No, I am. Don't get me wrong. I almost had a panic attack the other day just sitting in the same room. I guess… I guess I just pity him is all.”

Natasha didn't respond to that.

It was then that Pepper walked in, and they both shushed her pre-emptively, same as Tony had, making sure she was aware of Loki's sleeping before she spoke. She glanced at him, surprised, then looked back up and quietly relayed, “Thor says hi.”

“How's the kid?” Tony asked.

“Talkative would be an understatement.”

“Yeah?” A split-second grin crossed his face. “Tell me all about it.”

Natasha sent him an indignant glare and said, “Don't leave me with him.”

“Loki's harmless,” Tony calmly responded, standing; as if to emphasize his sentence, Loki quirked onto his back again, loosening what little remained of his updo and sending a few strands across his cheek. Some of the hairs dipped into his mouth. “Just a few minutes,” Tony said. “I don’t want to keep whispering.”

Natasha held the glare for another moment before moving to sit where Tony had been. Her gaze went firmly to Loki and didn’t waver once as the pair stepped out of the room.

She watched for movement. Waited. Loki remained utterly still this time, as if he knew she was expecting something; he didn't so much as twitch. She relaxed slightly, but didn't look away—only kept watching. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. He didn't move. He did, however, start breathing just a little quicker than he was before. It wasn't sudden; she wouldn't have even noticed if she wasn't looking so intently. Yet the difference was there.

She waited for him to calm down. He didn't. She waited longer, hoping the fear would die on its own, and still, there was nothing. Seconds passed with no change; then, at twenty, Loki shifted back onto his other side, clearing the hair from his face and bunching his armour at the shoulders. His breaths turned to hushed whimpers. He started muttering. The language was foreign: other than it sounded vaguely Scandinavian, there was no making heads or tails of the words. Some of the words were repeats, and Natasha memorized those easily, but the rest was lost on her.

She thought the same thing as Tony: this was not the man that attacked them. And, at once, she understood the pity.

Natasha reached out, moving cautiously and expertly, and gave Loki a gentle nudge. He quieted immediately. She sat there a little longer, thinking the panic would return, but it looked to her he'd settled for good this time, and she sighed and drew back.

Another minute passed. Loki remained perfectly still.

She stood and left the room.

 

Chapter Text

Loki awoke feeling like he'd stepped out of one dream and into another: dazed, numb, no sense of anything beyond his own body. There was a waning headache and that uneasy fog over his senses, as well as the knowledge that he didn't remember falling asleep, nor where he'd done so; the ceiling was unfamiliar.

He blinked a few times and swallowed the dryness out of his mouth, and then rolled into a sitting position; his hair fell directly into his eyes and he squinted, swept it away with one hand and held it in place as he oriented himself.

The memories returned abruptly, and, after a glint of simple embarrassment, he panicked.

The book he'd been reading was placed firmly on the coffee table and the empty mug wasn't on the floor (said coffee table had been out of arm's reach; he'd sworn he would get up eventually) which told him someone had come by at some point. He grew even hotter at the thought: who had seen him?

He sat a little straighter and awkwardly finger-combed the rest of the hair from his face. Between the once-again untamed curls were numerous odd creases and tangles, as well as a respectable amount of frizz. He spent a few seconds smoothing strands and picking out knots, cursing the fabric he'd slept on, and then he realized with another jolt of flustered urgency that one: he was shedding, and two: it certainly wasn't all that cotton-polyester blend's fault as he'd hoped. Oh, goodness.

He promptly withdrew his hand, glazed it green with a spell, and pressed it to his chest. There was a buzz, goosebumps on his head—his entire body; he might as well—and then nothing. He brushed at his hair again. There was nothing this time. Satisfied, he finished tucking it behind his ears and then stood.

The lounge was still empty, as expected: everyone was too busy playing search-and-rescue or whatever else to relax much. Meanwhile, here he was, sleeping on their furniture like he owned the place—and someone had seen him. Of course they had. Picked up his trash, too; at least they were considerate.

Unsure what else to do, Loki quietly wandered through the room. The book was interesting, but he wasn't especially keen on continuing it right then, and his mind was too fogged up, anyway. Magic was… well, he could go practice something in his room; all the exhaustion had faded days ago. There wasn't really any point, though. A clock. He needed a clock. His first priority was figuring out what time it was.

He sat in a random chair at a random table and peered down the hall, saw nothing, and then looked the other way. A simple, white analog hung on the wall; 4:32, it read.

He gaped.

It was somewhere around noon when he sat down to read, and he'd fallen asleep when, he didn't know, but it must have been shortly after if he was this out of it. That was… uncommon.

He stared for another moment and then stood once more. Paced. Returned to the kitchen, sat in the same couch, and sighed.

For the first time in a very long while, Loki felt truly, maddeningly bored.

He sighed again and sank deeper into the cushions, pondering his options—whether or not he wanted to try and keep reading through the brain fog/boredom (he didn't) and what else he could do if not that. Thor was probably still out; Loki might have spared a bicker or two with him otherwise, or a spar, or whatever he usually did when he didn't know what to do. Nothing was coming. He stood and circled the coffee table, brows scrunched, fingers tapping unconsciously at his knuckles, and then, finding no other option, he turned and made for his room.

He didn't bother closing the door; he nudged it a little, just so it wasn’t entirely agape, and then went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was as forlorn as before. He stared, lost in thought again, and reached into his holding space. There wasn't much in terms of food: just the two jars of pickled fish (which Tony still hadn't tried) and one of strawberry-currant jam. It seemed silly to be clogging up his dimensional pockets with them, though, so he stuck then inside—and with that in mind, he also brought out an Asgardian vintage he'd been keeping longer than he remembered. It was holding up fine by the looks of it, but even wine didn't last forever; he'd have to do something with it sometime soon. He left it there in the hopes that he’d eventually consume it and closed the fridge.

He stood there for a moment, then glanced at the sink. His mouth still felt awfully dry. Maybe he could—

No. He wasn't that thirsty.

Loki sighed and slipped back into the hallway. He stopped at Tony’s door and knocked a few times, waited for an answer, but none came. He knocked again, just in case. Nothing. He waited a little longer and then continued down the hall.

The door to Tony's lab was open, and Loki stepped inside to see him reclined in a rolling chair and fiddling with a disembodied Iron Man helmet. He was dressed a little more casually, in grey sweats and a tank top, and the always-there case on his chest was gone, likely for the maintenance. No music was playing.

Loki settled against a table a few metres away and watched him absentmindedly. A few seconds passed before he was noticed; Tony glanced up.

“Sleeping Beauty has finally awoken,” he said, cracking a smile. “How was your nap?”

“Why didn't you wake me?”

“Oh—I didn't know how you would react.” Tony poked at a panel on the side, frowned, then added, “I've had people flip out on me before, so I figured it was best to just let you rest. Didn't want to risk anything. Sorry.”

Loki drew back from the table. “Who saw?”

Pause. “Just me,” Tony said. “Why?”

“I was just wondering.”

“Ah. Yeah, just me.” The panel snapped off and Tony stared, eyes wide, as it arched in the air and then landed squarely in front of Loki's feet with a dull clatter. “I didn't mean to do that,” he said, hand frozen in place. “Definitely did not mean to do that. Wow, that's some trajectory.”

“Right,” Loki said, rolling his eyes. He stooped to retrieve the piece and set it on the desk Tony was sitting at. “What exactly are you trying to do, then?”

“I'm trying”—he wheeled himself to the opposite table—“to fix the world's most stubborn short circuit.”

“It's not something I did, is it?”

“Oh, no.” Tony waved his free hand dismissively. “It's been doing weird shit since Titan. Something with the targeting system. It's not really urgent, but you know—better to deal with it now than when it's actually a problem. Can you pass me that screwdriver?” he asked, pointing to the floor.

Loki bent to pick that up, as well. He handed it to Tony with a dim, dry smile. “I'm not your servant.”

“I know,” Tony said. “I'm allowed to ask favours of people while they're in here.”

“How's Asgard?”

“Lost. Speaking of—I actually hate to have to ask this, whatever—I was going to ask if you could do whatever you did with this suit on that computer right over there.” He pointed at the array of monitors behind Loki. “Same thing, bigger scale. It'll be way more efficient.”

Loki glanced over his shoulder. “Correct me if I'm wrong,” he said, facing Tony, “but can't you just transfer the existing data?”

“Yeah, usually,” Tony said. “Your magic just does not want to do that properly.”

“Magic is just science you don't understand.”

“You know, Thor said the same thing once.” Tony set the helmet down and leaned forward in his seat, resting his arms on his knees. “Funny story, though: it's really not.”

Loki smiled again. “Too many extra steps?”

“Uh, yeah, way too many extra steps. You're trying to compare a triangle to like, a Klein bottle.”

“A what?”

“Exactly. So here's what I want you to do.” Tony kicked at the table leg, propelling himself back to where the computer sat. “I'm gonna set up a global scan—same thing I did with you when you, uh, ran away—and you're gonna help with the criteria.” He glanced at Loki. “You're cool with that, right?”

“I've got nothing better to do,” Loki said, walking over. He sat on the edge of the desk, next to the keyboard. “Why do you only have one chair in here?”

“Uh, because it's my lab?”

“Right.”

Tony brought up a series of maps and grids, and then, with several seemingly random keystrokes, a blinking text box in the centre of the screen titled SEARCH CRITERIA. Loki turned to look at everything.

“You know what you're doing,” Tony asked, “right?”

“Of course.” Loki stood. “Get off,” he said, pressing a hand to the chair's armrest. “I'm not giving myself a spinal injury because of your poor planning.”

Tony snorted and left the seat.

Loki sat cross-legged and looked at the screens, at the keyboard, at the screens again. He squinted, summoned a tentative spark of magic to his fingertips, and rested them on the keys. Hesitantly, he closed his eyes. He let the spell guide him, weaving its energy through all the little bits of software he did and didn't understand, trying to determine what and why and how. Tony used satellites; that part was easy. They were sorely lacking compared to the suit, but they'd been modified with the same adaptive scanning technology—even if only partially.

Loki opened his eyes and stared at the box. The technology was there. The technology was definitely there.

He flicked his wrist, and the screen stuttered: several of the maps went dark, overlaid with a flashing OFFLINE, before winking once more into visibility a few seconds later. He pressed his hand to his cheek and eyed them uncertainly.

“Everything good?” Tony asked.

“Hold on,” Loki said, still staring at the screen. “I should be able to make this work. Give me a minute.”

Tony nodded.

Loki brought his hand back to the keyboard and imagined the Æsir form. Each nuance, each large and small detail of their anatomy, down to the trivial differences he never even noticed and only knew because the books taught about them; everything he could think of. He finalized the spell, and a point appeared in the box—then two, then three, each slowly ghosting itself into being on command of his description. The most obvious traits were first; the odder ones, in theory, would appear farther down the list.

He leaned back in the chair and watched the growing text.

Tony came up behind him with a curious expression. His eyes fell on the density marker: a multiplier of just over three-hundred percent in relation to humans. “They can't be that heavy,” he said, brows furrowing in disbelief. “That's ridiculous.”

Loki shook his head. “Everyone's much heavier than they look. Haven't you noticed?”

“I mean, it never really came up,” Tony admitted with a shrug. “Thor, maybe. After a certain weight, you just don't pay attention.” He glanced at Loki. “Is it just Asgardians?”

“Æsir,” he corrected, calmly, without much thought. Acceptance, he supposed; not all Asgardians were Æsir and not all Æsir were Asgardian—a little less than true peace, a little more than what he'd said on the ship. He couldn't know. “You mean Æsir,” he said. “And no, there are others.”

“You?”

Loki shifted in the chair, causing it to creak loudly. “I'm pretty close,” he said. “Give or take a few hundred pounds. I don't remember the exacts.”

Tony looked back up at the screen. “You can't scan things like that.”

“It's not rejecting them,” Loki noted, following his gaze. “I have failsafes on my spells, and none of them are going off, so yes, I'd say you can absolutely scan things like that.”

“Chromosomes, Lokes? Seriously?”

“I did the same thing before. It worked fine.”

The text flickered, and Loki sighed and pressed his hands to the keyboard again, shrouding it in green. He watched the letters shift, cycle between various languages, and then settle; the sentences resumed their formation.

“Still good?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I know what I'm doing.”

The next line finished typing itself out, and nothing followed. Loki skimmed through the list, making sure nothing was missed, and then slowly stood.

“That's it?”

“It should be.” Loki paused. “You owe me for this.”

“Yeah, I expected that,” Tony said, sighing. He sat in the chair and confirmed the new criteria, added the location (everywhere on Earth) and then started the scan. Another sigh, longer and clearly joking. “Thanks, though. I really appreciate it.”

“How long will this take?”

“A day if we're lucky. I'd give it several.” Tony rolled back to the helmet. “I'll leave it running and see what happens,” he said, picking it up. “What about you? What's up?”

“I'm fine. A little bored,” Loki admitted after a moment, “but I'm fine. I'll go finish that book.”

“Spider kid came by earlier,” Tony said. “He's still worried. I told him you were good, but he kinda wants to see for himself, you know?”

“That's sweet of him.”

“Will you talk to him? Seeing him worry makes me worry and… you understand. He should still be in his room—set up some video games and dragged Pepper and Nat into it. Sam too, I think.”

Loki nodded. “I'll stop by,” he said. He glanced at the helm. “Good luck with that.”

Tony managed a smile. “Thanks,” he said, and then returned to poking wires as if nothing had ever happened.

Loki took another look at the screen. Various progress bars had appeared beside the maps, some racing along and others barely moving. It was certainly slow-going, but the spell had worked flawlessly from what he could tell; that was all he needed to know.

He quietly turned and left the room.

Chapter Text

The hazy, half-asleep feeling didn't waver. It lingered on the way to the dorms, as if Loki was still dozing on the couch and might wake up for real if he let himself—as if the world might simply wink itself away.

He drifted, barely conscious of his own feet and absentmindedly trailing a hand across the walls he passed. He wondered what he'd done to call the fog. It always came for a reason: when he was overwhelmed, when he was stricken with some unbearable shock, when he was so anxious he couldn't breathe—trapped him deep inside his head so whatever he was facing couldn't affect him. There was no fear to calm this time. Odd, but not unheard of; only inconvenient.

Ignoring it was pointless, of course, so he didn't. He accepted its presence and left it at that.

He turned the corner and tried to remember which room was Peter's. Third door—which side, he didn't know. He made for the right door

(wrong one)

and then froze, fingers on the handle, heart suddenly pounding, and stepped back. He tried the left; it was unlocked. He eased it open and quietly entered.

There was a console haphazardly wired to the TV and a game on the screen, as promised. The group had settled in assorted postures on the couch, with Peter perched knees-up in the far left end. He spared only a split-second glance over his shoulder as Loki walked to join him. “Hey!”

“Hi,” Loki said, sitting on the couch arm. “Are you winning?”

“Nope,” Sam answered. “I'm kicking his ass.”

“Yeah, because you blue-shelled me,” Peter shot. He sighed and glanced up again. “It's this—it slows down whoever's in first place.”

“Oh.” Loki turned to look at the other two. Pepper didn't notice him. Natasha, on the other hand, gave a terse, polite nod; it seemed almost forced. He hesitated, then returned the gesture. “How have you been, Peter?”

“Uh, good, thanks. You?”

Loki shrugged.

“That's… good.” Peter blushed and pressed himself deeper into the couch. “Oh, jeez.”

“Don't worry. No one ever has an actual answer for those. So, Romanoff.” Loki tilted his head forward to look at her. “I can understand these three, but you? You don't exactly scream fun.”

“Puppy eyes,” Pepper said, snickering. “Even she isn't immune. What about you?”

“I got bored.”

“You got bored?”

Loki shrugged again, which was apparently a sufficient answer. He brought a leg up for stability, crossed at the ankle, and then leaned back to watch. It took a few seconds to figure out which quadrant was Peter's; once he did, he kept track of it for the short remainder of the round, only occasionally checking the rest.

Peter claimed first place just as they reached the finish line. Sam stared, tried—failed—to utter a complaint, and then threw his controller. Loki stopped its motion with a flick of his wrist. He held it in the air for a moment before floating it to its owner once more, a manic grin on his face the entire time. “Be more careful.”

Sam rolled his eyes and snatched it from the air. “Shut up.”

“Hey, he's right,” Peter said. “Don't break my things, please.”

“I won't let him,” Loki assured, wriggling his fingers for emphasis. “I've got quick reflexes.”

“Yeah, so what was that?” Peter asked.

“Telekinesis.”

Peter gaped. “Seriously?”

“Oh, don't look so surprised. You've seen me shapeshift.”

“You can shapeshift?” Sam said, incredulous.

“I can do all sorts of things,” Loki responded. “And you know, that reminds me: I still don't know your name.”

“Sam. Hi.”

“Hello, Sam.” Loki smiled.

They returned their attention to the screen, where Peter was scrolling through the courses. He paused at one, heard a loud protest from Sam, and than sighed and picked another. “Mr. Stark sent you?” he asked.

“He did,” Loki answered. “Why?”

“I was just curious. He, um—yeah, I came by earlier, but I guess you were busy. I was… worried about you.”

“I heard.” Peter was about to speak when Loki continued, “Don't be. I really appreciate it, and thank you, but don't worry about me. I'm not that weak.”

“I know,” Peter said, brows creeping together. “I just don't want you to have to—”

(fight it)

“These things happen,” Loki softly explained. His voice almost broke on the last word and he swallowed hard, thinking, how ironic; how bloody ironic. He calmed himself and said, “Don't dwell on them.”

Peter adjusted his hold on the controller and started the round.

They played no CPUs and bikes only, with Peter clearly taking advantage of the latter. He swerved and skidded through much of the track, climbing along each and every unbeaten path he found. Whenever someone passed him, he passed them right back—mostly Sam, sometimes Natasha.

Sam was seconds from the line when Peter did precisely that, just like the previous round. This time, he stood, tossed the controller into the couch crevices, and trudged off to the bed. “That's it,” he said, collapsing on the edge. “I'm out.”

“You're no fun,” Peter called over his shoulder.

“How do you keep doing that?”

“Magic?”

Loki snickered.

“Hey,” Peter said to him, “why don't you play?”

“Does he even know what a video game is?” Sam asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“What do I look like?” Loki said.

“A demigod with a leather kink, I guess, but that doesn't really tell me anything.”

“You know there are children here, right?”

“I didn't hear anything,” Peter said.

“He didn't hear anything,” Sam repeated.

“So he didn't.” Loki paused. “Well, to answer your question—I've been around enough. You see things.”

“Thor's been around, hasn't he? And he doesn't know anything.

“He's the boring one.”

Sam seemed to accept that.

Peter grabbed the controller and handed it over, pointing at various buttons and describing what they did. He went slow, slower than necessary, but Loki didn't mind. Once everything was covered, they leaned back, grinned at each other, and turned to look at the screen.

“I'm gonna beat you,” Peter said as he selected a course.

“Try,” Loki smugly responded.

“So I guess that means you don't want easy mode or anything like that.”

“You would be correct.”

Peter loaded up an ice track, positioned and repositioned his thumbs on the controller, and released a long, low breath. “I'm playing Mario Kart with Loki,” he said to himself, nearly shaking with giddy disbelief. “This,” he went on, “is the weirdest day ever.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Loki said, smiling.

Peter didn't bother responding, knowing that if he did, it would probably be incoherent, anyway. He tapped through to the countdown, waited with the same broad expression as Loki for the numbers to hit “Go!” and then off they went.

Loki, as Peter discovered, really was the quick learner he'd always known himself to be. Combined with his lifelong love for games and a constant urge to best others, it wasn't surprising that he passed all three of them within seconds.

Halfway through the final lap, Peter sped into first place, as usual, and it almost looked like he was going to win again—then Loki was in front of him just as rapidly, taking the finish line with a triumphant, “Ha!”

Peter's jaw dropped. Behind them, Sam fell into hysterics; the rest of the room was similarly amused.

“Okay,” Sam managed between laughter, “maybe you do know what you're doing.”

“That was a fluke!” Peter said, glaring up at him. His voice had the same humour, though, which only made them laugh harder. Loki was the only one with some restraint.

“Round two,” he offered, nudging Peter. “You can't prove it was a fluke without a second attempt.”

“Oh, I'm gonna kick your butt,” Peter shot back, and Sam's laughing turned into passionate wheezing.

The new pressure to win meant liberal ramming and use of items on Peter and Loki's part, doing whatever they could to slow both themselves and the other two players. Natasha and Pepper stumbled a full lap early on, nulling the latter concern and leaving them free to wreak havoc on each other.

Following a series of tricks throughout the course, it seemed Peter was going to win, with him sluing into first shortly before the finish line, but he relaxed moments too soon. Loki knocked him off the track and casually claimed the victory with another self-satisfied giggle.

“Horrible,” Peter said, gaping at the tally. “Terrible. I refuse to accept that. Luck can't hold you forever, Loki. I will destroy you.”

“Whatever you say, spider.”

The rounds progressed as such, with the two teetering between first and second. Peter consistently and repeatedly bolted forward, and at the end of each track, Loki did the same, stealing wins last-moment in a manner all too familiar to the others. Sam called this karma, a statement agreed upon by everyone except for—of course—Peter, who was still taking the game with a clearly lighthearted but intense drama.

Natasha left at the fifth round; Pepper, at the sixth. Their absence only escalated the onscreen antics, which everyone continued to laugh at with the same vigour.

By the eighth round, Peter had amassed two wins, and he insisted this was proof enough. Loki nodded along with an obviously unconvinced smile.

“Alright, pass me the controller,” Sam said, plopping into his prior seat. “Two against one, Loki. You're going down.”

Loki's response, again, was a simple, “Try.”

Round nine wasn't much different. By the end of the final lap, though, after multiple delays and detours between the three of them, Sam dashed into first, and Loki was about to counter the move when Peter blew them both off the track—and just like that, Sam won.

The ensuing silence dragged on for a moment before Loki turned to Peter and said, “So was that your heroic sacrifice?”

“Maybe,” Peter answered. He stretched, yawned, and then asked, “Do you want to keep playing?”

“I'm fine either way. Sam?”

He shook his head. “You two can keep going. I'm gonna go out.”

“You just needed that one victory to sate you,” Loki said, chuckling. “Is that it?”

Sam matched the chuckle. “Could be. Anyway”—he stood—“have fun. Don't hog the wins, both of you.”

“We'll try,” Peter said. “Bye, Sam.”

“Bye, Pete,” he responded as he opened the door and left.

A second passed.

“Alright,” Pepper said, crawling out of her seat, “I think I'm going to go too.”

“Aw. That was nice, though.” Peter smiled up at her. “Thanks.” He paused. “Nat?”

“I don't have anything urgent,” she said, “but…”

“You don't have to stay if you don't want to.”

She nodded. “Yeah—have fun.”

They exited together, leaving Peter and Loki alone on the couch. Loki moved to one of the freed cushions, made himself comfortable, and watched as Peter removed Sam from the roster and started a Grand Prix—CPUs on this time.

“Thanks for being here,” Peter said, not looking away from the screen.

“I'm happy to join you,” Loki responded—and he was; he truly was. For the first time in months, he could say that he was content and it wouldn't be a lie.

 

Peter and Loki played for another forty-odd minutes and half of a fresh tourney before Tony walked in.

“Oh, no way,” he said, stifling a laugh. “I can't believe you roped him into this.”

“He didn't rope me into anything,” Loki said.

“No? Huh.” Tony wandered over to where they were sitting, coming to rest against the side of the backrest. “Who's winning?”

“Undecided,” Peter said.

“Are you staying for dinner?” Tony asked.

“Uh, yeah”—Peter jerked the controller—“I think so.”

“We were going to order some Chinese. That's cool with you, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Loki?”

“No wheat,” he reminded, “but other than that, sure.”

“Yeah, I was going to get rice noodles, actually. You're good. So,” Tony continued to both of them, “how about you finish that round and come down? I need to do a headcount, anyway.”

“Alright,” Peter said.

Tony nodded and left the room.

The round ended roughly two minutes later, with Peter in second, just a hair's breadth from first, and Loki in fourth. They lowered their controllers, shook hands—dramatic as ever—and then made their way to the lounge.

Pepper was cross-legged at one of the tables; next to her, Tony was intently leafing through a menu and suggesting combos. He looked up once as they gravitated to the couch there, where Sam was sprawled in the corner and skimming something on his phone, and then went back to reading off foods.

“Okay, so that's nine,” he said, “plus Thor, I guess—he's still out, but he might come in, and plus maybe… two more? Just in case.”

“Food for eleven, got it.”

“So we're thinking”—Tony glanced at Peter and Loki—“all the staples, basically. A bunch of fried rice, noodles, veggies, like, a ton of veggies, because it's not healthy otherwise—”

“It's Chinese takeout,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes.

“Yeah, what's your point?”

Sam, Peter, and Loki all laughed, while Tony remained comically serious in his expression.

“Fine,” Pepper said. “I will get a very large quantity of vegetables to counteract the fact that it's not, as you want to believe, healthy.”

“You're getting rice noodles, right?”

“Yes, I'm getting rice noodles. Why are you so obsessed with that?”

“Loki can't have gluten.”

“He can't—are you serious?”

“It makes me vomit,” Loki deadpanned; beside him, Peter's mouth fell open in surprise.

“Jeez, that's worse than I thought,” Tony said. “I thought it was like… mild.”

“Sometimes. It depends on how much I eat and if I've eaten anything else beforehand.”

“So it's even more important that they don't mess up the order. Hear that, Pep?”

Yes, Tony.” Pepper heaved an overdramatic sigh. “No gluten and lots of vegetables.”

“And spring rolls and sweet and sour pork,” Tony added.

“Mhm.”

“Okay, does anyone want anything? Sherbet, bubble tea?”

“Oh—do they have strawberry bubble tea?” Peter asked.

Tony peered at the menu. “Yep,” he answered, looking up. “So you're getting that?”

“Yes, please.”

“Alright, anything else? Going once.” Tony waited. “Going twice.” Waited again. “No one? Cool.”

Pepper took out her phone and dialed the restaurant. She recited the order extra carefully, with Tony listening closely for any mistakes—especially in respect to the gluten exception. Peter listened along, while Sam focused on his own cell.

Loki, then, was the first to notice Steve mouse into the room. They locked eyes instantly.

Tony was the second to catch sight of him, and he acknowledged the newcomer with a tense, apologetic, and entirely joyless smile before returning to his verification of the order. Peter clammed up on the spot, while Sam, for better or for worse, was still occupied.

Reluctantly, Loki stood and walked over. “Hi,” he said.

Steve considered him, a faint, indecipherable look on his face. “Hi.”

Tony seemed like he wanted to protest, but he held back. Loki glanced at him, then at Steve, and quietly continued, “I'm sorry.”

Steve didn't answer.

“I wanted to ask…” Loki paused, running through the words. “I could clear those memories if you let me. You don't deserve them.”

Steve pondered this. He strolled into the kitchen and settled by the sink, unspeaking, with Loki at his side and Peter anxiously observing them both. His response came almost a minute later: “I can't trust you, can I?”

“No,” Loki admitted, “not really.”

Steve nodded to himself. “Alright.”

“Is that—”

“A yes? Yeah. Go ahead.”

“I need to locate them,” Loki warned. “I'll try not to stray too much, but—”

“Go ahead.”

Loki gave him the same uneasy smile Tony had, closed the distance between them, and pressed a hand to his forehead.

The memories didn't hurt; they were only memories now, nothing more and nothing less. As Loki dug through them, though—

Thanos, and the blood, and the broken bones—

and the yelling; gods, the yelling—

he couldn't help but feel a flit of panic in his chest. He breathed in, one, two, three, and breathed out, one, two, three, and gathered each piece that didn't fit. A knife through his torso, splitting the muscles, tendons, skin, gifting him with a horizontal slit from front to back. Gone—not from his own mind, never from his own, but from Steve's. The wild rage with which Thanos had spoken to him, hearing something he didn't like, and the way he'd struck him until he couldn't move; gone. His pale, haggard form in the mirror, riddled with unhealed wounds and recent scars, and how loosely his armour had enveloped him, not quite visible to the eye but palpable with every twitch; gone. He made sure everything was gone, then stepped back, smudged the tears from his face—

fuck, he was crying again—

and quiveringly asked, “What do you remember?”

Steve closed his eyes and searched. “Nothing,” he said, looking up at him. “I remember… it was awful. That's it.”

“Alright,” Loki murmured, “alright, that's good, I'm—I'm glad.” One two three. He rubbed at his cheeks, sniffed, and sank into the couch. Tony sent him a questioning frown, to which he replied with a weary thumbs-up.

“Okay,” Pepper said, stuffing her phone into her pocket. “That should be thirty minutes. If anyone wants to do anything in the meantime…”

Tony got out of his seat. “I'm gonna go collect everyone,” he said, heading for the exit. “I haven't forgotten about that, Lokes.”

Loki stared after him, confused, then uttered a tiny, “Oh.”

“You good?” Peter asked.

“Fine.”

“Do you want to go finish the race?”

Loki shrugged.

Steve sat next to them, avoiding Sam's unevenly splayed legs, and said, “Thanks.”

“I owed you that,” Loki said.

“Did you?”

“Yes.”

Peter stood, saying, “I'm gonna go turn that off if we're not going to play anymore.” Loki distractedly waved him goodbye.

“You were angry,” Steve said. “I mean”—he ran a hand through his hair—“it wasn't exactly justified, but…”

“It was a little justified.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I'm sorry too. I can't forgive you completely and I'm sorry about that, but you can't blame me.” Loki confirmed this with a curt nod. “But,” Steve continued, “I get it. And yeah, I don't really trust you, either, but I can try. You've grown. You're not that person I fought.”

Loki smiled, a warm, honest smile this time, and asked, “Is this a second chance?”

“Don't waste it.”

“Alright, um—let's start over. Hi, I'm Loki.” He stuck out a hand. “I like long walks by myself, the colour green, and I don't want to take over the world.”

“Hi, Loki.” Steve clasped his hand, just excessively firm enough to convey the message, and shook it once. “I'm Steve Rogers. I like… patriotism.”

“Nice to meet you, Steve.”

“Likewise.”

Behind his phone, Sam cackled. “Patriotism,” he mimicked. “What a Captain America thing to say.”

“At least they made up,” Pepper said.

“Did they?”

“I think we did,” Loki said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yeah, we did. For now.”

Loki snorted. “Don't be so pessimistic.”

“It's optimistic pessimism.”

“Whatever you say.”

Steve got up then, sparing another look at him before moving to one of the empty tables, across from Pepper. Loki sighed and reached for his book. He reclined in his corner of the couch not unlike Sam, flipped through to roughly the page he'd stopped at, and tried to read.

 

By the time the thirty minutes had gone, most everyone had trickled into the room and found a seat. Tony was the last one in, flanked by Peter, who had a backpack slung over his shoulder. Tony sat with Pepper, as expected; Loki, upon finishing the paragraph and setting the book aside, went with Peter. Thor didn't show.

Tony would have stated the rules word-for-word—he wanted to, shits and all—but paraphrasing seemed more effective. After they split the food, after everyone was too busy eating to interject, and with little announcement, he abruptly said, “The past is always there. We can't change that. If we're going to make this work, though—this”—he gestured to the group—“I want one thing to be clear: the past does not define us. Whatever anyone here has done, whatever has happened to anyone here, crimes or trauma or whatever else, I don't want it to be held against that person. If it's that important, it'll be dealt with calmly and without bias, and then we carry on.”

Loki smiled at him; so did Bucky, unsurprisingly.

Tony waited for an argument, but there was none. “Good,” he said, and resumed eating just as abruptly.

 

Chapter Text

Loki awoke the next morning aware of three things. One: the dream feeling was still there. It was weaker than yesterday and his focus had definitely returned, but he still felt very much detached from his surroundings, himself, and reality in general. Past experience told him that if it hadn't died by now, it would drag on for at least another week, and at most, months; hopefully, he'd have the former. Two: he didn't have a scrap of the required willpower to leave the building, which resigned him to reading, exploring the premises, or practicing spells. If he was being honest, though, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep, because three: he was exhausted. However long he'd slept, the dull nausea and dizziness pounding away at him was characteristic of three, maybe four hours, and he was sure that if he closed his eyes again, he'd be out in seconds. Nevertheless, he untangled himself from the sheets and crawled out of bed, one limb at a time.

There were leftovers in the fridge and yesterday's book on the table, and his magic could be taken wherever, so it wasn't like he had to leave the room—but he left anyway. He didn't bother with his appearance past finger-combing his hair.

The lounge was empty. He looked around, yawned halfway through his once-over, long and heavy, and then inspected the clock down the hall. Eleven-fifty-some, it showed, and he sighed and continued into the kitchen. Nothing out, nothing in the fridge there, and he didn't feel like preparing anything, so leftovers for breakfast it was. On the bright side, there was a decent measure of coffee still in the pot, and while he always found the caffeine content of most blends laughable at best, he figured it might help with the drowsiness; if nothing else, he could just enjoy the taste. After another yawn, he found a mug, set it firmly on the counter, and

(one two three)

tipped the pot's contents inside, slowly, soundlessly, and as precisely as he could. The mug was large enough that there was an inch to the rim when he'd poured them out, so he didn't have to worry about spilling. He steadied the pot, returned it to its dock, and placed his palm atop the edge of the ceramic. Microwaving was an option, but this was quicker: he sent a spark of heat magic through the liquid, warming it to somewhere between hot and tepid, and then moved his grip to the handle.

(one two three one two—)

Sugar would have been nice, as well as cream or substitutes thereof, but neither felt necessary that day. He lifted the mug and—

(breathe)

The fog in his brain surged. He did as instructed, three counts each way as he walked back, smoothly padding along on the tips of his boots and holding the mug stable through each step. Hallway ahead of him, leather armour, coffee in his hand. Lights humming. Muted city sounds from an open window. His own breathing: one, two, three, in and out. No pain.

Loki closed the door behind him, settled at the table, and took a few sips.

There wasn't much to practice, really. His shifting was fine, as was his teleporting, telekinesis, invisibility, and apparently, ice magic, which he wasn't exactly raving about. Fire was always fun, but the risk of casting anything indoors was slightly excessive, so he couldn't do that, either. That left any number of rarer spells, such as…

He stopped, mug to his lips, and peered at the ceiling. With a single, sharp intent, he visualized the electrical matrix, found the outlier, and broke in.

Recording: on.

“Hey, Tony,” Loki began, calm and even. He drank the rest of the coffee in one breath and placed the mug in front of him. “If you're listening to this, then you know I've made it so your AI can't function in my room. Sorry about that.” He paused, considering the words, the reactions. “You're probably wondering why,” he continued, standing with a clipped grunt. “I know you use FRIDAY to check on me, and I appreciate it—I do. I know there's concern at play, and that means a lot. But…”

He didn't think hard enough about this.

He strolled into the kitchen, retrieved last night's half-eaten, Tupperwared chow mein, and laid it on the counter. “But,” he said as he removed the lid, “I find it patronizing and a massive invasion of my privacy. You can't preach trust and change and then constantly be on guard like this. The main cameras are one thing; they're there, they're for everyone—it's just basic security. I understand that. Wiring a room because it belongs to me, because it belongs to Loki and you're not sure what I might do when I'm alone, is another thing. You know this just as well as I do.”

He paused again, warming the food while he went over his next words. “There's nothing I can do here,” he said, taking the container in one hand and reaching into the cutlery drawer with the other. “I suppose”—he grabbed a random fork—“you think I might do something to harm the Avengers, and I understand that, too. What would that look like, though?” He returned to his seat and set the food beside the mug. “Secret plans or some forbidden magic away from prying eyes, maybe, but if I wanted to do that, I could do it anywhere. You ought to know I can turn myself invisible. I—” He cut off with a sigh. “I'm sorry,” he muttered, pressing a finger to the bridge of his nose. “I'm rambling. What I'm trying to say, I think, is I'm not some—”

(heart racing)

The fork trembled in his grip.

(breathe breathe breathe)

“I'm not some prisoner here,” Loki finished, his voice suddenly distant, foreign. He closed his eyes, breathed in, out, and said, “If that truce really is still on, then you'll respect this. I won't harm you and you won't harm me, and if you need security in my bedroom to ascertain that, then maybe we need to reexamine our agreement. And by the way, don't try to override the magic; I doubt you'll find success. Talk to me if you have an issue, or otherwise, ignore it.”

End recording.

Loki addressed FRIDAY directly this time: “If Tony insults me after this message,” he began, gazing nowhere specific, “and I have the feeling he will, then would you please tell him—and only if he insults me first—he can bite my ass?”

Several seconds passed.

“Fine,” she said.

In spite of the fleeting panic in his chest, the sense that he was doing something terribly wrong, that something, anything would happen, a sliver of a grin darted across his lips. “Thank you.”

“I hope you're aware how unwise this is.”

Oh, was he ever.

“I am,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the mug. “He'll come after me at some point. I know he will. Until then…”

Loki raised his hand, located her once more, and formed a blockade around her entirety. Cameras, microphones, speakers. Gone. The technology was still there, perfectly untouched; in fact, and he was hoping this was the case, Tony wouldn't notice anything unless he searched. For now, Loki could relax—or at least, he could try.

He picked up the fork, thinking he should have kept the chopsticks, and started on his food.

There was something uncanny about eating alone, he realized between bites. It wasn't a new experience; he'd eaten alone many times before, and recently, too, with that pilfered salad holding fast as ever in his memories. What stuck out now was he usually only ate alone when something was wrong. Either he'd run away, gotten in trouble at home, or he was hurt, in the broadest definition possible, and unless he counted sitting under one roof with the Avengers as captivity, the slightly less common fourth point in that list, there was nothing. Everything was fine—well, except for the part where he was eating Chinese with a fork, because he was exactly the kind of pretentious twat who'd find issue in that; he stopped to guffaw at himself before resuming his meal.

As he scraped at the corners, shovelling the last noodles onto the flat of the prongs, his mind wandered elsewhere: he missed Peter.

It wasn't quite a full-fledged yearning so much as he merely wanted more time with him, more time just whittling away the gloom, the fear. There was something special in the way Peter treated him; he looked at him with awe, wonder, some profound sense of childish love, and Norns knew, Loki missed that. He was bored out of his wits and Peter helped with the boredom, but he also helped with that panic and misery and what else, and thus, short of maybe murder, Loki would do anything to stay at his side more often.

Not that he could say it aloud.

That want was as pathetic as the fear itself, the old memories scratching at his mind, the everything. Who was he to care so much about some silly mortal he'd met just days ago? Peter was a good person, an even better friend—were they friends?—but at the end of the day, he was nothing. He was a regular human, no more, no less, as bittersweet as it felt to think that.

Pathetic.

Loki sniffed distastefully, took the fork, mug, and container in one hand, and stood.

There was a dishwasher in the kitchen, but for three items, using it felt a little wasteful. That left…

He paused, lost in thought, then cleaned them with magic, vanishing what remained with a green flash. When the light faded, he returned the fork to its drawer and then headed down to do the same with the other two.

The lounge was as forlorn as before, which relieved him for some unidentified reason—no, socializing was a chore today, his mind filled in, especially with the likes of the Avengers. Loki left it at that. He rummaged through the cabinets, found where the reusable containers went, and neatly stacked the one he was carrying atop the pile, wryly mocking the not-so-structurally-sound arrangement under his breath. Once he was sure they wouldn't fall, he shut the cabinet door and ambled back into the centre of the room.

There was nothing unusual about familiarizing himself with the building; for all intents and purposes, he lived there, so of course he would want to know the layouts. At the same time, he was Loki, and anything of the sort was awfully suspicious—which pissed him off, to put it bluntly, but he understood it as much as everything else. Even he couldn't trust himself at times. With that, he stepped into a blind spot, masked his appearance, and started down the hall.

Past the lounge, there were various clear-walled rooms, some with computers and screens, some for meetings—formal ones, anyway. Others were empty, unrepurposed and unused to suit the Avengers' diminished ranks. Farther along was a bathroom, and to its right, a mystery door, the lock of which didn't deter him whatsoever. He leaned against its length, listening for any activity, and when he was sure no one was inside, he snaked an ounce of kinetic energy through the tumblers, lined them up, and turned the knob.

The room was mostly filing cabinets and boxes, with more tech scattered between them, and lit only by a dimmed fluorescent light. Loki stood in the doorway for a moment, scanning for any tripwires, thermal cameras—gods, he was paranoid—and then proceeded inside. He didn't expect much, to be honest—government secrets, plans, nothing he needed. It was plain curiosity that led him on.

Most of the cabinets were dated, ranging from months to years. Missions, he guessed; nothing surprising there. Two of them had labels featuring letters, instead: A-M and N-Z. He unlocked one, pulled out a random folder, and opened it. Contained was someone's photo, personal specs, and—he flipped the page—their… criminal record. Surroundings considered, Loki wasn't all that shocked.

Did he want to look for himself?

He thought about it, tapping the paper with a fingernail, then sighed, replaced the folder, and closed the drawer. There was nothing he'd see that he didn't already know.

He exited the room and continued to Tony's workshop, which was also locked, he discovered. Pressing his ear to the door revealed no music or mechanical sounds, meaning it was probably an answer to vacancy rather than “do not disturb” or otherwise. That was useful in that he could have entered it just the same, knowing there was no risk of collisions, his invisibility wearing off, or the general discomfort that came with spying with someone present; he had been inside twice, though, and there wasn't much of interest there—just machines, machines, and more machines. With that, he simply stepped away and descended to the ground floor via the nearest stairwell.

The map was still there, pinned to one of the walls, and he gave it a quick look. It was unlabelled as ever, only listing fire exits, elevators, and stairs, so he didn't stay long.

Down the floor, there were more offices, what he was pretty sure was a press conference room, a gym, and a basic infirmary, none of which he found particularly interesting. He was downstairs anyway, so upon leaving the infirmary, he headed straight to the library to stock up on more reading material. There, he selected four equally hefty history books, one on astronomy, just to laugh at Midgard's scientific incompetence, and then returned to his quarters.

The tome on America still had some hour or two's worth of text remaining, so he took that, piled the other five books where it had been, and curled knees-up on the couch. He had a hand on the cover when he stopped, vaguely wondering what he could do for additional comfort. After a moment, he set the book on the cushion next to him, formed another cleaning spell, and swept it over his body—minus the hair, which was more than fresh enough. Once that was dealt with, he summoned a heavy fur blanket around him, pulled it tight, and then—then he flipped to his last page, shimmied a little deeper into the corner, and began to read.

 

Loki didn't do much else.

The time blurred, easily shadowed by the words in front of him. He got through the rest of the First World War, noting it was somewhat insufficiently described, and decided he would do some further research later; same with the second. Past that, there were inventions, more wars, more inventions, and an awful lot of unconnected violence and terrorist attacks, which he took with as straight a face as the locked files. Earth as a whole had always been rather like that.

He skipped over New York.

There wasn't much after that; the edition was from mid-2013, and plenty had happened between then and 2012, but most of it was nutshelled. He reached the end, slid the book to the bottom of the pile, and started reading the uppermost and next one. That was where the time really sped.

He wasn't complaining; it was a lazy kind of day and he didn't mind using it up to educate himself, never did. Introspection wasn't a bad thing, especially with all that was bothering him—risky, anyway, with all that was bothering him, but it wasn't bad. Lone downtime, he maintained, was an underrated and unappreciated blessing, and sure: maybe he would have preferred to light something on fire. He might have preferred a fight, physical, verbal, or both; something chaotic, loud, unpredictable, just to get all the emotions out. As it stood, though, and damn, he truly didn't want to admit it—

He had a lot of fear. Sometimes it was weaker, sometimes it was stronger, but it was always there, and while he'd been prone since birth and it certainly wasn't anything new, it was sudden. Years had gone by in relative peace, and now…

He had a lot of fear.

Reading in a silent room, cozied under a thick pelt with no one and nothing to bug him, was the least he could do. He deserved some calm.

He stood once to not-go to the bathroom (or: deal with everything magically, because peeing freaked him the hell out for some ridiculous reason) and acquire some midday sustenance in the form of the herrings in his fridge, which he still wished Tony would try, and then returned to his spot on the couch.

 

Chapter Text

There were twenty-seven Asgardians left that they knew of. 

Tony wasn't even awake enough to process the thought when it shot through his head, urgent and almost alarm-like in its presence. He stared up at the ceiling as the last of whatever he'd dreamt misted away, his breathing hard and heavy, and squinted. There were twenty-seven refugees that they knew of. Wonderful. That had been his impression all along, so his subconscious wasn't helping much there. What it did do was leave him feeling incredibly sure of himself, incredibly stubborn, and wanting even more to bring them home—or at least ascertain they were safe. Anything otherwise wasn't how he worked. He wouldn't be able to stand it.

He didn't get up immediately; rather, he turned onto his side and snuggled deeper into Pepper's arms with a breathy groan, because he really wasn't ready to leave the bed just then and by the looks of it, neither was she. They didn't have anywhere to be and he doubted a few minutes would change anything as far as Asgard went, but he knew that if he stayed any longer, he'd probably be in until noon, so he slowly and half-willingly inched himself off the bed and went to get dressed. Pepper reluctantly followed.

“I think,” Tony said as they left the room, “I'm going to go check on Loki. I haven't heard anything and I'm kinda worried he's blown the place up or something.”

“Could be,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes. She pressed a kiss to Tony's cheek and then shooed him down the hall.

Loki's door was locked when he found it. He stood against it for a moment, wondering whether or not to knock, and then gave several solid raps. “Loki?”

Somewhere inside, Tony heard a muffled, sleep-dazed, “What?”

“Can I come in?”

There was a grunt, the sound of a couch heaving, and a heavy thud and accompanying swear before the lock clicked free.

Tony entered just in time to see Loki returning a book to the pile on the end table, visibly straining to reach. The pelt was tangled around his legs and his hair curled and frizzed in all directions, and Tony, as he pressed a shoulder to the doorframe, thought two things: Goth Merida fit impeccably, one, and two… jeez, he looked like shit.

“What?” Loki said again, glaring half-lucidly at him.

Tony cleared his throat. “There's breakfast,” he awkwardly explained, “if you want to join us.”

Loki blinked once, long and hard, and asked, “What about yesterday?”

“Sorry. I came in twice, but you weren't waking up and I didn't feel comfortable going all drill sergeant on you, so I just… let you sleep.”

“Oh.” Loki pushed the blanket off and staggered to his feet. “That's considerate,” he said, rubbing an eye. “Yeah, I didn't sleep well that night. It's good you left me.”

“What about last night?”

“It was alright. Better, anyway.”

“Do you think the bed would have helped?”

“I tried that. Didn't work. Got up and figured I'd just keep reading, which… well, I passed out at some point, so I'd call it a success. How bad's my hair?”

“What?”

“My hair. How bad does it look?”

“I think it's fine.”

Loki wasn't impressed.

“I mean—yeah, it's pretty messy,” Tony admitted. “It doesn't look bad, though. It suits you.”

“Right.” Loki sighed and stepped away from the couch. “Never mind, then,” he said, pulling the locks into a low ponytail. “What's for breakfast?”

“Stuff. Salad.” Tony shrugged. “Maybe a steak. Breakfast food being a construct and all that.”

“That's nice.” Loki tested the knot and then continued out the door at a leisurely pace. Tony walked after him, silently noting a crease in one of his outfit's shoulders.

“How's sleeping in armour?” he asked.

“Cozy,” Loki said. “You should try it.”

“I have. Can't say I agree.”

“Ah, but was it leather?”

“Oh. Point taken.”

They didn't say anything more.

Pepper was already in the kitchen when they came in, digging through the fridge for various ingredients—salad after all, by the looks of it. She glanced at Loki as he stole a seat nearby, her eyes betraying the slightest unease, and then resumed her search.

“I could do that,” Tony said, sliding next to her.

“You don't know how to cook,” she responded.

“Okay, I burn eggs sometimes! That doesn't mean I don't know how to cook.”

“How do you burn eggs?” Loki asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

“Dedication,” Pepper said.

“Fine, be like that,” Tony muttered. He snatched a mandarin from the fruit bowl and sat by Loki. “Steak?” he asked Pepper as he began to peel it.

“We're not having steak for breakfast,” she flatly answered.

“There go your plans,” Loki said.

“Yeah, whatever.” Tony offered the mandarin to Loki, who deftly took three segments with a warm smile and thank you, and then got to eating it himself. “Any news?”

“None,” Pepper said. She closed the fridge and moved to the counter with an armful of produce.

“Loki?”

“Natasha's been looking up what we can do.” At the name, Tony stopped, his lips parting in surprise; her, of all people? “No details,” Pepper assured, looking over at him as she went to get a large bowl. “Not until it's safe.”

“If ever,” Loki said, reaching for another piece of fruit. Tony didn't object. “I'm never that lucky with these things. I might as well resign myself to a new identity.”

“Nah, we've dealt with worse,” Tony said. “I think we can figure something out.”

Loki gave him an odd, questioning look. He popped the sliver into his mouth, swift, almost sparrow-like in his movement, swallowed just as quickly, and then asked, “Is that you speaking? Or Thor?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Why do you care so much? Is it just because of the truce or do you actually feel some… I don't know, some sense of debt towards me?”

Tony didn't know how to answer. He made to say something, realized it sounded stupid, made to say something else only to come to the same conclusion, and then settled on finishing the mandarin while he thought. “It's a bit of both,” he eventually said, raising one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Yeah, there's Thor, but there's also you doing all that the other day. Or maybe I'm just trying to be nice. I think I said this before, but you seem pretty cool, so—might be worth it.”

Pepper frowned, obvious code for, “You know he tried to kill you, right?” Tony acknowledged her with a tense nod.

“I appreciate that,” Loki said. “Thank you.”

“See, you're even being polite. That's gotta be worth something.”

Pepper sighed and continued picking apart vegetables. “Bucky thinks we might be able to get everyone in Wakanda while we're sorting out Asgard,” she said as she tossed the last of some lettuce into the bowl. “It's not perfect, but it should be better than…” She gestured vaguely.

“Better than the tent city we've got going on outside,” Tony said.

“Ideally, yeah. He'll tell you if he finds something.”

“Awesome.”

Pepper stepped away from the counter. “You two want anything else in here?” she asked, grabbing a bowl for herself. “Chicken, nuts?”

“I'm down for anything,” Tony said. “Loki?”

“Uh, same.”

“Alright,” Pepper said. She found a fork, filled her bowl, and then headed off, saying, “Dressing's in the fridge. I'm going to go work on some files.”

“Have fun,” Tony called after her. He stood and went straight for the food. “What about you, Lokes?”

Loki took a moment, watching absentmindedly as Tony split the rest of the salad into two portions. “I'm not sure,” he said. “I think… I might just stay here again.”

“What, and sit in your room all day?” Tony looked up. “That can't be good for you.”

“It's safe, at least.” Loki got out of his seat and joined him. “I'm just saying”—he retrieved a second mandarin—“I would rather deprive myself of sunlight than constantly be on guard. You understand.”

“I do,” Tony said. “Still.”

“I've spent longer stretches indoors and been fine. Don't worry about me.”

“If you say so. I'll be at the camp if you want to come down sometime today.”

“I might.” Loki took one of the bowls in his free hand and then paused, straying just to the side of the couch, before adding, “No promises.”

“Yeah, that's fair. See you.”

Loki smiled and continued towards the dorms.

Tony considered his salad. He had barely decided whether or not he did want nuts before he'd gotten a bag of pecans and dumped most of them into the bowl—same with a random bottle from the fridge. He returned both to their places and then went to eat at the couch.

 

Between some ungodly amount of paperwork and figuring out just what to do with the refugees, he hadn't gotten a chance to check whether or not the scan had accomplished something. It probably hadn't; a search like that on criteria like that was a pain at the best of times, and a day's deadline would reveal nothing. (Good hell, he needed to upgrade the systems already.) Two days was still pushing it, but he'd have something. So, albeit a little nervously, he polished off the salad, cleaned up, and then went to his workshop to see if he was right.

There were more than twenty-seven. There had to be. So when he pulled up a seat, opened the results, and saw there in the middle of the screen—

28 MATCHES FOUND

(28 rather than 27 on account of Thor, who wasn't much of a refugee but had nonetheless tripped the mechanisms as someone of Æsir descent)

—he had no idea what to feel. He stared at the words until the pixels had burned themselves into his retinas, as if he could falsify them through willpower alone. Then, slowly, he leaned back in the chair.

The results were nothing unexpected. He'd been told multiple times, no nonsense, no beating around the bush—just twenty-seven, simple as that. There were twenty-seven left. He still had that nagging in his mind, though, saying no, it couldn't be that little, no, that couldn't be the grand total as they were making it out to be. There was more to the matter than just two digits. How many, for example, hadn't arrived on Earth when they escaped the ship? How many had branched to a different safety, undetected and unbeknownst to the rest?

One was somewhere. Thor (or was it Loki?) had said enough about the nameless warrior that had helped herd the ship's passengers and then mysteriously vanished, and with everything in that story considered, Tony was fairly certain that “mysteriously vanished” meant the chaos had made Earth too unsafe of a route and she was doing just fine elsewhere, and hopefully, so were those who had tagged along with her. If they'd survived the initial onslaught, they could probably handle deep space in some escape pods—probably. Asgardians were tough; space was tougher.

Whatever happened, Tony knew, the blood wasn't on his hands, but damn, it sure felt like it. If nothing else, then, he could just move on and do whatever he could to help whoever was left and keep hoping that things were going well on the other side. Nothing he hadn't done before.

Regarding Asgard, there was good news. Tony had just touched down across from the camp when he learned that the last straggler had been picked up, meaning they could focus on permanently settling everyone—assuming they found a spot, anyway. Norway was still more than appealing and he was sure they could piece some land somewhere if they asked, tossed in a fortune, maybe added an awfully morose-looking Thor, too, just for extra convincing. If all they got was a little village off the coast, that was plenty; something like that couldn't be too difficult.

Tony shifted to normal clothes, sunglasses definitely included, and made his way through the camp. The supplies around the grounds had finally been gathered into a somewhat orderly form, sorted and stacked in various corners rather than the hasty setup they'd had the first day, and one of the tents was open and visibly overflowing with a fresh stock of food and water. It was right as he passed it that Svala and another young girl popped out, wildly giggling and carrying a handful each of sweets. Svala noticed him almost immediately; the other girl was quick to join her.

“Hi, Mr. Stark!” Svala said, waving with her free hand.

He waved back. “I thought I said you can call me Tony?”

“Oh, sorry. Tony. Hello.” She smiled. “Is Loki here?”

“Uh, he's still at home. Doesn't look like he'll be out today.”

Svala's disappointment was almost tangible. She took a hurried bite of some pastry, swallowed, and asked, “Why not?”

“He's just tired, I guess,” Tony said, shrugging. “That fight and everything was hard on him. Give him time.”

“Tell him there's chocolate,” the other girl suggested with a wolfish grin.

“You know what? I totally will. Also, hi. We haven't met.”

“I'm Crow.” She let her grin taper to a soft smile as she swept her hair back against a tawny, freckled visage. “Nice to meet you.”

“Crow, hi. That is literally such a cool name. Is that like a nickname, or?”

“Something like that. My real name is too long.”

“Oh, okay. Anyway, wait, who brought chocolate?”

They looked at each other.

“Natasha?” Svala tried, sounding like she wasn't quite sure whether she'd remembered right.

“Seriously?” Tony said. “That is… not something I expected from her.” Really—first Loki, and now this? He needed to thank her.

“She's nice,” Crow quietly remarked. “Val would have loved her.”

“Will,” Tony corrected. “We'll find her. I'm sure she's somewhere.”

Crow smiled again. “That means a lot. Thank you.”

Tony matched her smile and then continued along the camp—not before picking up a cookie from the food tent because of course, he just had to.

 

He didn't do much else, in all honesty. He introduced himself to the newcomers, fixed what needed fixing, such as scattered crates, collapsed tents (only one of those, thankfully, and just slightly), and other such mild annoyances, and spent far too long intermittently checking his phone for updates. Mainly, he found himself asking back and forth about where they were going with Asgard, Bucky's proposal re temporary housing, and Loki's criminal status—because of course, he was worried about that, too, especially in light of his near-refusal to leave the compound. That Loki felt obligated to hide and that they all agreed it was for the best was… well, he'd rather it wasn't like that.

Thor was out doing God knows what, Pepper was still slaving away at a desk somewhere, no telling what everyone who wasn't involved in the Asgard situation was up to, and Tony, as he aimlessly circled the camp, began to actually long for a meeting or presentation or some other boring whatever somewhere. With the search-and-rescue part of the problem out of the way, he wasn't sure what else he could be doing. He felt utterly stagnated. He still desperately wanted to prove that there were more survivors out there—to himself, to Loki, who would probably be relieved as hell to know, to everyone. He wanted to do something useful, and this was not it. Okay, the cookies were really good (who on Earth had made them? Gordon Ramsay?), but seriously: gorging on saturated fat and texting every three seconds was not a productive way to spend an afternoon.

The only reason he was still at the camp was, again, helping around as necessary, which seemed to be just often enough that he wasn't being entirely useless. And the kids liked him; that counted for something. He could afford to stay.

He sat at one of the plastic tables and went back to texting.

Tony: Hey can you tell Loki to come down to the camp there's chocolate

Pepper: ???

Tony: Yeah I'm not sure either? Someone told me to tell him because I guess he likes chocolate and that might get him to come out of his cave

Tony: And he doesn't have a phone so I'm asking you

Pepper: OK

Tony: Cool thanks

He set his phone aside. Where was Thor? Supply run? Oh—yeah, that made sense, actually. Out on a supply run; in other words, being useful. Didn't most of New York still need repairing? Surely there was more he could offer than just moral and financial support.

He sighed and switched to news site-hopping.

Roughly ten minutes blurred by that way: skimming articles, wondering what he could be doing, distantly watching everyone in case something arose. Then there was a flash of green in his periphery, and he looked up to see Loki, stepping out of nothing with a defeated almost-smile on his face.

“I can't believe that worked,” Tony said, grinning.

“Unfortunately,” Loki responded. He shrugged and started walking. “What can I say? I've got a weakness.”

Tony stood and walked after him. “Anything else I should know?”

“No, that's mostly it,” Loki said as he entered the tent. He searched for a moment before coolly grabbing a single chocolate bar off the end of the table. Tony watched in wonder.

“You're just…”

Loki calmly awaited the rest of the sentence.

So unbelievably human, Tony almost wanted to say—not in body, but in all those little details he'd never once noticed before, details that had failed to show themselves that fated day so many years ago. This side of Loki, warm and wisecracking and sweet-loving, was blissfully refreshing to see, and if this was his norm, it was more than welcome. With him, though, just about everything could be twisted into a come-on; how could he possibly phrase it?

“Never mind,” was what Tony ended up saying. “Lost my train of thought there.”

“Oh.” Loki stuck the chocolate somewhere in his dimensional confines and then strode out of the tent, with Tony following.

“How's your day going?” he asked. “Stuff, things?”

“Just reading,” Loki said. “I might make some tea. Test some spells. Something.”

“You don't want to, I don't know, help with Asgard?”

Loki visibly faltered at that—not a lot, not for longer than a quarter of a second, but enough that it was apparent. His voice remained calm as ever, though, as he said, “No. Sorry.”

“Svala, though,” Tony protested. “At least say hi.”

“Sure. Tell her I said hi.”

Then he was gone; just like that, just like he always vanished, he was gone. The sparks in the air fizzled away at a similar speed, leaving no trace that he had ever been there. Back to vegetating, Tony figured.

Oh well.

Tony: Fancy dinner tonight?

Pepper: Sure

Chapter Text

For the next few days, there was nothing. Logistics were examined and arrangements were made, with most everyone busying themselves somewhere off the compound vicinity, and Loki, meanwhile, had his books and spells and had no issues staying in one place, leaving only to join some of the rare pseudo-family meals. As far as those went, he wasn't even that hungry; he ate breakfast, comfortably skipped lunch, and then had maybe a small dinner, if anything—which made sense, seeing as he wasn't burning many calories sitting in his room. That was nothing unwelcome.

Loki went beyond the building's outer doors exactly twice: once to the camp, to clandestinely pick up what little plain chocolate was left, and then again around the compound property for restlessness' sake. He didn't bother during his snack raid, but on the second trip, he made sure he had a solid shroud of invisibility covering him. Habit, paranoia, he didn't know. It didn't matter; there was no harm in precaution. He walked to the dock out front, taking in all the vast, crisp details, and then walked back inside and upstairs to his room, unhurried. And that was it. He didn't make any further attempts to leave. He didn't need to.

He spent that morning on the same couch, under the same fur blanket, eating herring on quinoa-something-or-other crackers (because in Tony's wise words, breakfast food was a construct) and wondering about Asgard. Rumours of Wakanda had been numerous when he stopped by the camp, so he assumed they'd be packing soon—or at the very least, they'd be trying. And good for them; the place was a mess, and even though most everyone there was some form of commoner and wasn't entirely unused to conditions like that, he couldn't imagine they found it pleasant. He'd never been to Wakanda, but he knew enough to know that until they found a long-term grounds for Asgard, a settlement there would be perfect.

Did he want to visit? Not really. They were faring just fine without him, and anyway, he had enough entertainment here—and then there was this nagging sense that leaving would be tantamount to suicide, which… well, everything considered, it likely wasn't as irrational as it seemed. With that, he finished his not-breakfast and went downstairs to the library, where he browsed for a short time before returning to his prior spot with a generously illustrated book on European wildlife. He tossed the pelt back over him and started reading.

Seventeen pages later, there was a knock on the door. His eyes flicked up for a fraction of a second, then down at the words again, as if nothing had happened.

Another several knocks sounded. “Yo, Reindeer Games! Can I come in?”

Of course.

Loki checked from afar whether the door was locked, saw that it wasn't, and then sighed and said, “Sure.”

“I was just thinking,” Tony said as he walked in, “you've been wearing that armour for like, the whole week you've been here.” He closed the door halfway. “Do you want any actual clothes or something? Because I could get you some.”

Loki wasn't sure, now that Tony mentioned it. If a certain aesthetic was needed, then magic typically sufficed. That was the only problem he ever had; the leather was more than comfortable enough for everyday use, and with his living situation, he couldn't imagine that was a bad thing. Paranoia, after all, tended to pay off.

He set the book on the adjacent cushion. “What sort?”

“The expensive sort,” Tony answered, smiling the equivalent of a cheeky wink. “Anything you like.”

“I mean, if you're offering, then sure, but this isn't particularly urgent.”

“Loki, please. Even Thor changes his armour sometimes.”

Loki heaved his second sigh in thirty seconds. “Alright.”

“Awesome. Any preferences?”

“Uh, fancy but not too fancy. I don't know. Go wild.”

“Sounds good to me.” Tony stepped into the hallway. “Have fun,” he said, closing the door.

Loki rolled his eyes and went back to his book.

“Wait”—Tony opened the door again—“what size are you?”

“Doesn't matter,” Loki said, not looking away from the paragraph. “I can tailor whatever you give me if needed. Magic and all that.”

“Oh, cool. Okay. Sorry.”

Tony left for real then, audible by the click of his soles down the hall. Loki gave a third sigh and continued reading.

 

Some couple of hours and a litany of odd species later, time that he hadn't even noticed going by, there was another knock at his door: six quick raps and then pause, two more, and, “Special delivery! Armani and… stuff.”

If not for the stab of almost-panic the sudden interruption sent through his gut, Loki would have laughed; Tony's announcement was humourous enough. Save for a single twitch in the corner of his mouth, though, there was nothing. “Come in,” he said, letting the book fall closed over his thumb. His smile surfaced as Tony entered the room, sunglasses half-on and a large shopping bag slung over his shoulder.

“So I gotta say this,” Tony began. “Picking out clothes for people I don't know that well is stressful. I know you said go wild, but… yeah, no. I got you some basics and this one other thing that just caught my eye and I'm pretty sure you'll love it. No promises, but yeah, there's a very high chance you will approve.” He placed the bag neatly on the floor, right beside the couch, and then straightened himself and removed the glasses. “What's up with you? Living the good life?”

“Something like that. How's Thor?”

“Honestly, I haven't seen him, so…” Tony shrugged. “As far as I know, he's busy being all diplomatic somewhere, either Norway or Wakanda. Both, maybe.”

“Is he having any success?”

“I think so, yeah. It's been going pretty great so far. Would go better with you there.”

“It… really wouldn't. I'm not much of the diplomacy type.”

“I figured. If you want to at least try, though—”

“And risk someone reacting unfavourably towards me, yes.” Loki breathed a pained, closed-mouth chuckle. “I'd rather not. Not that I can't defend myself, by the way. It would just complicate everything too much.”

“Yeah,” Tony said after a moment, “that makes sense. I mean—if you're happy here, then sure, I guess. Keep reading or whatever. Just know that it's me Thor and the kids are harassing about getting you some sunlight.”

“You'll survive,” Loki said.

“Most likely. I'm gonna head back, then. Don't forget to stretch sometimes.”

“Bye, Tony.”

He turned and left, shutting the door behind him.

Loki looked at the bag.

There was no way Tony had gotten anything decent. None. Sure, they had a similar affinity for immaculate dress, but that was it. Even so, he'd put enough time and thought into it that Loki just had to wonder. And what was that one thing he said he'd love?

Loki stood and carried the bag to his bed, secretly feeling much like a child on Asgard's answer to Christmas, and one by one, he started taking articles out and laying them on the spreads. First were two plain tees, one black, one dark green, both in the nicest cotton blend he'd ever felt; expensive was right. Then there was a grey-on-black, lace-patterned collared shirt, which was—alright, he did enjoy it, as did he enjoy the other shirt, which was a regular black not unlike what he often forged himself with magic. Dark, solid-coloured jeans, slacks, sweats of the same absurdly soft material, and—

Oh. Oh, there it was.

The last item in the bag was a dark green, ankle-length, claspless coat of thin, crushed velvet, relaxed and almost robe-like in its drape. He stared for a few seconds, stunned, then stepped away from the bed to examine it in all its detail. Tony had gambled correctly: he was absolutely enamoured.

Loki placed the coat atop the other clothes and then locked the door, freshened himself up with a surge of magic, and undressed. He tried a tee and, finding it a little too loose for his liking, tightened it to a more form-fitting shape, and then did the same with the other one. He tried the button-up over the tee and was pleasantly surprised to find that other than the collar's width, there were no alterations needed there. The rest of the clothes had no sizing issues at all, and goodness, the price truly was obvious; they felt exactly like what he'd worn once upon a time as a prince on Asgard, with the only difference being the style. Once he'd judged everything, he changed back into the slacks, black tee, and coat, and smiled. Ear-to-ear, warm, genuine, he smiled. He loved every single item and he still couldn't believe that Tony of all people had even offered to begin with, nor the sheer effort he'd expended. Was the armour that bad?

Loki paused. He double-checked the door was locked, looked out the windows to see if anyone was watching, and then twirled in the coat, just to get it out of his system. The fabric moved freely, light and fluid in its motion, before settling against his body.

He loved it. He loved it so much.

Satisfied, Loki slid his boots on, gathered the clothes off the bed, and ordered them in the previously empty dresser by the bathroom. Then, slowly, he went back to the couch.

Past the giddiness over the new clothes, especially the coat, there was no curbing that worry that if something happened, if there was some attack or incident or some other ill, he would be too unprepared like this. And that wasn't quite the case; if needed, he could conjure his armour in seconds, regardless of what he was wearing. But what if he couldn't use magic?

Paranoia. Paranoia paranoia paranoia. He was sick and tired.

(But really: had Tony intended the new clothes to leave him defenceless?)

No—Norns, no. That was ridiculous. Tony was famous for his generosity; there couldn't possibly be malice in such a gesture. And he surely knew that if it came to it, all it would take was one well-placed knife and that armour or a lack of would change nothing—and why would he wait until now to try something, anyway, rather than attempting on Titan? That was something Loki had already established as reason enough not to fret, and he found comfort in his argument. The unease still lingered, however—that tight, claws-at-his-guts sensation that this was a mistake, that somehow, somewhere, something would go wrong, and the error would be solely on his conscience. Everyone, meet Loki: god of chaos, mischief, and incessant worrying. How charming.

He ignored the urge to re-equip his armour, knowing that it was mostly baseless, and opened the book to where he'd left off. He didn't bother with the blanket.

Loki showed to dinner that night feeling for the first time in too long that he was home, feeling confident and beautiful and like even with that fear of everything and nothing hanging over him, maybe things weren't quite so bad as he was making them. And oh, it wasn't just fear; he was terrified, fighting a distant panic attack to moderate success—but no one needed to know.

Tony just about lost it when he saw the coat. “You,” he said, striding up to him, “look awesome. How is that? Cozy?”

“Very,” Loki said. “Thank you.”

“Except—except, come on, you can't wear this nice outfit”—Tony gestured widely—“with those.” He pointed at Loki's boots. “Please, get some dress shoes or something.”

Loki rolled his eyes and shifted the offending article to a pair of glossy, black wingtips.

“That's not what I meant,” Tony said.

“Whatever.” Loki walked into the kitchen. “At least I'm not wearing a band no one under fifty has even heard of.”

Tony gasped and made an expression like someone had just kicked a puppy before his eyes. “I'll have you know,” he said, “I'm forty-seven. And that's not true.”

“Hate to say it, man,” Sam called from his seat, “but he's right.”

Tony stared at him, his mouth still open in shock. “Okay, fine. According to you, maybe.” He turned to face Loki. “I will forgive you once,” he calmly explained, holding up a finger; Loki stifled a giggle. “Don't talk to me or my bands ever again.”

“Alright,” Loki said. He grabbed a bowl and set it on the counter. “Don't question my fashion choices and I won't question yours.”

“Great.” Tony lowered his hand. “Mutual respect here.”

“Always.”

A few seconds passed. Loki got some soup from the pot by the stove, a spoon, and then found a seat.

“You guys argue about the dumbest things,” Bucky said, smiling to himself. “Keep it up. It's good entertainment.”

Tony sighed.

There were another several seconds of nothing after that, during which Loki very subtly cooled his food and got to eating; Sam and Bucky laughed at some silent joke between them; Natasha, all but unnoticed in the corner of the room, crossed her legs and continued listening. Steve and Bruce simply ate.

“Sorry, this is kind of out of the blue,” Tony said, “but I just… suddenly remembered, and since we're all together, uh—who left that file room down the hall unlocked?”

Shit.

Loki cast a long, furtive look around the room, hoping maybe it wasn't his apparent blunder several days ago that was in question, but there was nothing. He breathed in, untensed, and acted natural.

“Okay,” Tony went on. “That room does not lock automatically. It should, but it doesn't. We're working on it. Please lock the door upon exiting.”

Which Loki knew; he knew it was a manual lock and he knew that he was supposed to magic it closed when he was done. He had merely forgotten.

With the silence refusing to break, Tony went to get some food. Loki sank deeper into his seat and pretended not to notice his inner voice screaming, “You fool! You hapless, bumbling idiot! How in all the realms could you make such an error?” At least it was something small—and at least he wasn't the first suspect. This would pass.

“I can't believe you all survived without me,” Tony muttered from the kitchen. “I'm like your frickin' nanny.”

“Thanks for putting up with us,” Natasha said, glancing at him over a raised spoon. For want of a snicker, Loki felt the lazy tug of a tired, half-formed smile at his lips.

Tony sat at one of the free tables and pulled out his phone, tapping something to someone (Pepper?) while he waited for the food to reach an edible temperature. Loki almost asked if he could help; just like every other time, however, he couldn't bring himself to.

“You don't know anything about that file room,” Steve asked, “do you?”

The tone was polite enough—peaceful, for lack of a better word. At the accusation, though, a wave of dread bit through Loki's stomach, and he swallowed, breathed in, out, before smoothly answering, “I don't even know where that room is.”

“You don't?”

“I don't, no. I've been in maybe… six rooms in my time here. Seven, if this counts as one.” Loki shook his head. “None of them were a file room.”

“If you say so.”

Steve returned to his food then, and Loki released another long, nervous breath. Somewhere, some part of him decided that staying in one place was his best option after all; he ignored the thought and continued eating, as well.

 

Chapter Text

Loki didn't mean to heed his subconscious when he began spending whole days in his room. In fact, when he really looked at it, his passive refusal to leave was mostly laziness—laziness and lack of a reason. His appetite was still down and with many of the building's residents out and about, his choices of activity were mainly introspective: reading, more reading, some very meaningful self-care, and practising spells, as always. If he bothered to ask, he was fairly certain he'd be allowed into whatever less temporary, not quite permanent location Asgard had found themselves. There, he could probably help with some of the technical aspects, even throw in some wards while he was at it. But he didn't bother. For now, it was just books, books, and more books.

And fear.

Sometime that morning, Loki turned invisible, warped directly into the lounge, grabbed an apple, and then warped back to his room. He didn't wash it; in his untroubled opinion, he didn't need to. He chanced a different roost for once and sat at the table, fruit in one hand and something on quantum physics laid flat in front of him, and ate his respectable, nutritionally sound breakfast, wax and all.

He had to admit: he was restless again. He wanted to do something more than stare at words from dawn to dusk, and it wasn't like he couldn't; worst case, he had invisibility and every other tried and true cautionary spell to counter his discomfort. So, after calmly and meticulously picking the seeds and stem from the apple and finishing the core, he recast his cloak and went downstairs. Where to, he didn't know, but he knew he'd seen targets in the gym, and flinging daggers at things was always a nice way to spend a morning.

Loki almost expected to see Steve, maybe even Natasha, but there was nothing; the gym was perfectly deserted, just as he'd hoped. He eased the door closed and wandered through the room, hands in his coat pockets, veil still equipped, and found the wall of wooden targets. They were marred with thousands of little scrapes and cuts and by the looks of it, recently used. A rack to the side held various throwing weapons: knives, daggers, darts, a few things he didn't even know were in use anymore, and others. He peered over his shoulder, around him, and then took out the smallest knife and shot it cleanly into one of the targets' head—took out another knife, did the same, and then went and yanked both of them free. The fresh marks in the paint stared palely back at him. He stood there for a moment, inspecting the damage, before returning to somewhere in the middle of the room for a second go.

Gods, he was bored.

He aimed, closed his eyes, and threw the knives at neighbouring targets. When he looked again, they were both dead centre—nothing new or particularly challenging; even so, he felt a twinge of satisfaction at the accomplishment. He retrieved the knives, placed them in their prior location on the rack, and then summoned a random dagger of his. That shot was virtually automatic, spanning barely a fraction of a second between the evocation and when the blade lodged itself into the wood. It wasn't as firm, he immediately noticed, and he went to examine the weapon more closely. Dull as a rock; of course. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd sharpened it. So then, he realized, he could spend his day sorting through his collection, but that…

Well, he could. He just didn't feel like it.

He sighed and headed back upstairs.

 

He had no idea when he ended up asleep on his couch.

He'd sat down for all of two seconds as he tried to think of something to do, and the next thing he knew, a knock on the door was jolting him out of what felt no longer than a ten-minute nap. If it was Tony again—

“Lokes, you in there?”

Aghhhhh.

“Yes, I am,” he said, clambering into an upright position. “Hi. What do you want?”

“Uh, just checking in. Permission to enter?”

“No, I—hold on. Shit,” Loki hissed to himself. He blinked the sleep away and finger-combed whatever hair he could manage into a more reasonable state, and—oh, his head. “Um…” Nausea. Fear and nausea. He laid a hand on his temple and counted: one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Breathe and keep breathing. “Um, permission—permission granted.”

Tony inched the door open. “Good morning. Afternoon. Something. It's like, almost one o'clock, actually.”

“Good day?” Loki suggested. “All of the above? Hello, maybe?”

“Uh… yeah.” Tony gave him a tight, awkward smile. “Hi. What's happening? Everything good?”

“Wonderful. Just reading again. More reading. I love books.” 'I love books'? What the hell kind of lead-tongued sentence—

“Yeah, I can see that,” Tony said. You're not, I don't know, bored?”

Goodness, yes. He was bored out of his bloody wits.

“No,” he said. “I'm fine here. What about you, Tony? Asgard, anything? Built any machines lately?”

“Machines, no. I tweaked some Iron Man stuff the other day, but that was it. As for Asgard, it's been—everything's great. Norway's been so chill and Wakanda got a nice place decked out for while we wait to formally settle because—well, it's not much fun sleeping in tents there this time of year. Norway, I mean.”

“Asgard's not that delicate,” Loki said. “We tamed those lands long before any human had set foot on them, you know, and it did often call for tents. Winter, summer, didn't matter. No complaints on our end.”

“I know. No, I know that. But if a nicer option is available, you'd obviously prefer it.”

“Well, yes. I'm just saying you don't have to go out of your way for all this.”

“No, no one went out of their way. Everything was easily available and it was like, okay, it's the least we can do for these guys.” Tony shrugged. “Might as well, right?”

“I mean, if that's the case, then yes, of course.”

“And once we've got some actual shelters,” Tony continued, “we should be able to do a permanent relocation instead of just hopping back and forth. Then wham! New Asgard.”

“Any dates?” Loki asked. “Or is this just somewhere in the general vicinity of the near future?”

“Uh, something like that. We're thinking a few more weeks at the most. Optimistically, everything should be good to go by next Monday. Ish.”

“That's… good.” Loki paused. “Thank you,” he quietly said. “For all this. I know I've been distant, and it doesn't seem like it, but I care very much about Asgard. Even if things have changed, even if I lack the bonds I used to have, this means a lot to me. I just want everyone to be safe.”

Tony nodded. “I know. They know, too. They've been lauding you as a hero.”

A hero who failed half of them. Right.

Loki stood and adjusted his coat, as well as his shirt, which had both gone lopsided at some point during his slumber. Then he sat down again, legs crossed, hands on his lap, and said, “So, you're checking in. Why?”

“Well, just letting you know about the outside world and such. That's important, isn't it? And I wanted to ask—”

He knew. Tony knew. Oh, hell.

“I'm sorry,” Loki blurted.

“What? Why?”

“The—no, wait, you didn't know, did you? I just made this worse. Ignore me, please. Carry on. I said nothing.”

Tony frowned. “FRIDAY? No, I know. I found out, like, last week. Got your strongly-worded postscript and everything.”

“And that too, I'm sorry—”

“Hey.” Tony raised a hand. “It's alright. Breathe.”

He was breathing, damn it; he was breathing just fine. Five counts both ways—a personal default set more than a thousand years earlier, independent of whatever had happened on that wretched planet. One, two, three, four, five. Inhale, hold, exhale. Muscles taut, jaw clenched. The waning dizziness following an insufficient rest. Cologne? Oh, for fuck's sake, since when did Tony wear—

“Overreacted,” Loki muttered, closing his eyes. “No surprise there. Okay.” One, two, three, four, five. He let his shoulders fall and tentatively looked up. “What do you want?”

“It's been a while,” Tony said. “I got worried.”

“It's been three days.”

If there had ever been a body language equivalent of a record scratching, Tony's wordless blink and head-cock was probably it. “Loki,” he said, “it's been five.”

“What? No. That's… no. What, are you telling me I just slept through those other two? I didn't sleep that much. Just some naps here and there, some—”

“Have you been eating?”

“Wh—yes! Yes, of course I'm eating. What do you take me for?”

“Seeing as you somehow lost track of two whole—”

“I had an apple for breakfast.”

“An apple.” Tony arched an eyebrow. “One single apple.”

“It was a very nice apple. Nice variety, whatever it was. You wouldn't know, would you?”

“Uh… no. Loki—”

“What?” he snapped. “I don't need to eat that much. I'm not like humans. If you're worried I'm starving or something, I'm not. Believe me, if I was hungry, I would eat.”

“You need air,” Tony said, “and interaction. You can't just sit here.”

“Why not?”

“Why—I don't know, because… jeez. What are you trying to accomplish?”

“I'm relaxing. I'm reading and not talking to anyone and it's working very well on my current state of mind, thanks for your concern, and would you please leave me now?”

“No,” Tony said, incredulous. “No, I'm not leaving. Loki, just—would you come down? Get some real food, don't talk to anyone, whatever. I just want to see you out of this room for like, three seconds.”

Loki, ashamed of the reply in his head but not ashamed enough to refrain from speaking it, shed his Allspeak just long enough to say something that would have loosely translated to, “You don't dictate my life, you arrogant worm. Kindly fuck off and let me damage my health as I please.”

“I don't speak that language,” Tony calmly informed. “I'm assuming it wasn't a compliment, though, what you just said.”

“I'll leave that part to your imagination.” Loki shifted, letting out a tiny grunt as he did. “Why are you so concerned about whether or not I leave this room?”

“I, uh… I'm more or less the one in charge here, and I guess that just makes me in charge of the wellbeing of everyone living here. I don't know. I just feel responsible.”

“Did you forget what happened between us?”

“I thought we were over that.”

“We only wish we were. Isn't that the case?”

“I mean… yeah. That attitude isn't going to help, though. Look at you.” Tony motioned towards him. “You're wearing clothes I got you, sitting in a room that I have very kindly lent to you pretty much indefinitely, you know, you've got, uh, food and shelter and all this great… stuff, because—because I'm trying to work past that. Or something. I don't know.”

“You're still scared of me,” Loki said, expressionless.

Whatever objection Tony was about to say died clean in his throat. He stepped away from the doorway and sat in the opposite end of the couch, a good several metres from Loki, and said, “A little. I'm scared of everyone here, to be honest. What, we've got Steve—Cap, Mr. Rogers, I don't even know what to call him anymore, uh, I still expect him to hurl a shield at me in my sleep. Um…” He swallowed. “Nat. She's great. I love her. Same thing, though. It's been this one-eye-open thing ever since we met up again.”

“That hair suits her.”

“Right? I mean, it took me a while to get used to, but yeah, I'm with you on that. Uh, what else… Yeah, there are others. Place still feels like I'm going to get lynched if I breathe wrong. Or maybe that's just me being paranoid. Don't know, don't care. Whatever. Anyway, my point is—my point is, trusting you is no different than trusting anyone else here.”

“Except you don't.”

“Yeah, I don't. Don't kill me and I won't kill you, though. Isn't that what we said?”

“Something like that.”

“Keep working on it. Maybe we'll get to call each other friends eventually.”

Loki squinted.

“I know,” Tony said. “Talk about a pipe dream.” He stood and pulled out his sunglasses. “I'm gonna go do some… things. Maybe you want to join me.”

“What kind of things?”

“Things.” Tony slid the glasses halfway up his nose. “We could get lunch or something. There's this sweet seafood place about a ten-minute drive from here. I think you'd like it.”

“No, thank you.”

“You're not hungry or you don't want to be in my presence for that long?”

“Both.”

“Ow.” Tony pushed the glasses to a normal position. “I'm kidding. I'm guessing you don't want to come see Asgard-Wakanda, either.”

“You'd be right.”

“You sure? It's not too late there.”

“Positive.”

Tony said nothing to that. He stopped, indistinctly looking at him from behind those glasses, thinking, calculating something, and for a moment, Loki felt the oddest and maybe not entirely irrational suspicion that he was using them to observe his steadily increasing heart rate. The sour glint in his eyes lent some credibility to the theory.

“Seriously,” Tony said, “make sure you stretch. I've spent hours in one place like that and trust me, you will regret it.”

“Thanks for your concern.”

“Also, do you want, I don't know, a phone?”

“I don't need one.”

“Okay, then.” Tony turned and walked out the door, saying, “Stretch. And come down to dinner tonight.” Then he closed it and continued down the hall.

Loki sat there for a few seconds, pondering his next course of action—listen to Tony, maybe, except he didn't quite have the patience to properly stretch just then. Going to get his book and a glass of water was more than enough as far as that went.

Slowly, he stood and went to the kitchen. He got a cup and held it under the faucet. And then he hesitated. His fingers froze in place and he felt a wink of apprehension in his stomach and he goddamn fucking hesitated.

Breathe. In and out, one, two, three, and then he pretended nothing had happened and switched the cold water on, filled the cup, switched it off, and returned to the couch, swiping the book from the table on his way. He found his last page and started reading.

 

Chapter Text

Loki did attend that one dinner, but other than that, he fell very quickly and very firmly into an overwhelmingly solitary rut, thriving on books and whatever little food he'd stashed in his room. He didn't trouble himself too much with the whys or hows of his dwindling appetite; no desire to eat meant more time saved, more time to do other things, and that was of far more interest than whether or not he was, say, dying, which he wasn't. He accepted it for what it was and that was it.

The hoard was finite, of course, and it was some three mornings later that the fruit and pickled herrings (which to that point had still never been tried by anyone other than himself) ran out, forcing him and his not-yet-gone appetite out of his room—no invisibility, no muffling, since he forgot either one for whatever reason. It came as no surprise, then, that he was intercepted while waiting on a toasting slice of bread in the lounge.

“Aren't you gluten intolerant?” Tony asked.

“Yep.”

“Don't care?”

“Don't care.”

Tony joined him by the counter. “Jordbær og ripsbær,” he read, lifting the jam. “Syltetøy med frø. Cool. I have absolutely no idea what that means.”

“Strawberry and redcurrant. Jam with seeds.” Loki smiled, hoping to hide how much he didn't want to entertain an idle conversation just then, and added, “Good job. I expected worse pronunciation out of you.”

“Oh, well—thanks for that incredibly backhanded compliment. Yeah, I learned some things in this place this one time on a business trip.”

The toast popped up with a loud ding. Loki flinched.

“You know,” Tony said, “you never explained that universal translation spell.”

Please stop talking, Loki thought, and for a good second or two, he was ready to say it aloud. Then he sighed, plucked the hot bread out and dropped it on a plate, and instead told him, “I understand you and you understand me. There's nothing more to it. The spell”—he grabbed a butter knife—“is a permanent blessing that was designed many thousands of years as a way for the nine realms to communicate. Or the eight, really. You all were too early in your development at the time.”

“That's pretty old.”

Loki nodded. “The Allspeak has become such a part of us,” he said, taking the jar from Tony's hand, “that it's now naturally passed down from generation to generation. Recasting is rarely needed, if ever.”

Tony crossed his arms. “Tell me more about how the spell works.”

“It's always active, although the output can be adjusted at will, depending on the wielder's skill and such.” Loki paused. “Well, sometimes not at will, too,” he added with a shrug. “Anything can happen. Anyway—functionally, it's like regular fluency in a language. I know you're speaking English right now. I know what words you're using and what you're saying to me, and if you were using a dialect, for example, I'd be able to tell. It's the same thing when I'm speaking to someone else.”

“I'm sensing a but.”

Loki unscrewed the lid and scooped a generous glob of jam out onto the toast, then looked up and asked, “What language am I speaking to you in?”

“Trick question?” Tony tried.

“Clever,” Loki said. He closed the jar and got to spreading the jam. “It may sound like it, but it's not English. Not really. Not technically. I know what I'm saying to you and I know what it means, but I'm letting magic dictate most of it. As far as I'm concerned, most of this conversation is in Asgardian. I'm currently processing you in both languages.”

“So you're actually speaking Asgardian?”

“Yes. Technically, anyway. Don't worry about that.”

“I'm asking you to explain this and you're telling me not to worry about the explanation.”

“Alright, the spell is full of convolutions and contradictions that even I can't fully grasp most of the time. How's that for an answer?”

“Horrible. It'll do, I guess. This works for writing, too?”

“The same magic applies, yes. If I'm writing something myself, then I have to consciously choose the language, but it's no different.”

“Can you understand animals?”

“Sometimes. It depends on the animal. Languages like those can be learned manually if needed, and the spell helps, but… no. It's not worth the effort. Which reminds me: they did teach some rather strange languages on Asgard—those that aren't translated by the Allspeak. Thor learned one once. Something tonal. I can't recall what it was.”

“Huh.”

Loki willed the knife clean with a flash of light and then put it away. Behind him, he could almost feel Tony's curious gaze. He ignored it and picked up his toast.

“You know they make gluten-free bread, right?”

“I know.”

“Don't care?”

“Don't care.” Loki took a bite.

“Was that the last slice?”

Was it? Loki took another bite and tried to remember the bag's condition. Tony, meanwhile, reached into one of the drawers for a pad and pen, then went about digging through various cupboards.

“Yeah, last slice,” Tony said after a moment.

“Sorry.”

Tony scribbled something on the paper and then checked the fridge. He frowned. “Can I ask a huge favour?”

“Maybe.”

“Would you be okay with some grocery shopping? Just you?”

Loki looked at him like he'd just grown a second head.

“I'm busy all day today,” Tony said. “That's why I'm asking. You're the only person I know is free.”

“What gave you that impression?”

“Reading books and messing with your digestive system isn't busy.”

Loki sniffed and continued nibbling his toast.

“Come on,” Tony practically whined. “It'll take, like, thirty minutes. Probably less.”

“You just want to get me outside.”

“Uh… possibly.” Tony pulled out a carton of milk and shook it lightly. “We do need more food in here, though.”

“I'm not your servant.”

“Nah.” Tony returned the milk and stood. “Servants are obligated to do things,” he said, closing the fridge. “This isn't an obligation. It would be nice of you, but if you really don't want to, I can find someone else.” He wrote another few points, tore the sheet loose, and then placed it an inch from where Loki was leaning on the counter. “Seriously, whatever.”

“You're not being very subtle,” Loki said.

“Nope. Go get some air.” Tony set a credit card on top of the list. “PIN's in the margin. Don't do anything crazy.”

And just like that, he was gone.

Loki stared after him, mouth open, and then hastily finished his toast and turned to look at the card. Anthony Stark, the front read, sure enough. What an asshole; a reckless, stupid asshole. What happened to not trusting each other?

He couldn't say why he didn't just deliver the two items to Tony's room and run. Between the exaggerated grief and betrayal he knew would be directed at him if he shirked and the fact that, alright, he did feel somewhat in need of exercise, he simply didn't have the heart. Too bad Tony knew he had the necessary experience regarding Earth; otherwise, he would have just claimed ignorance the likes of Thor and called it a day. “Sorry,” he could see himself saying, “but I've never set foot in a Midgardian shop in my life. Also, what's this mysterious piece of plastic you've bestowed upon me?”

If only.

With everything as it was, he expected nothing short of hell from a trip downtown. In spite of that worry, though, he sent the jam into storage, tidied himself up, and then left the compound.

 

The walk to the nearest supermarket was approximately twenty minutes, maybe seventeen, sixteen, so Loki did just that: walked. Warping would have been silly, and even if he wanted to, he was just a little too tired for dimensional travel. He needed the movement, anyway.

He expected many things to set him off when he entered the store. People. Sounds. What he didn't expect and certainly hadn't prepared himself for was for the fresh wave of fear to come from the lights. They burned. They were too harsh, too white, too artificial; they touched on the eternally present haze in his head just so, just enough to make him falter. He counted, focused on his breathing and the way his coat swayed with his steps, and snatched a pair of sunglasses from the front the instant he passed the rack—metal frame, black lenses. He tossed the tag into a basket and then put them on.

This was a mistake, he decided. He wanted to go home (home?) and fall asleep on the couch and not have to see or hear anything until the next day, not run someone's errands in a building that sent the false alarms in his mind blaring—and as for why that had happened, he didn't know. Didn't matter, either. Never mind how awkward he felt wandering through the aisles with sunglasses on and an ergonomically inefficient shopping bin in his hand; all he knew was he was scared. That deep, aching sense in his chest that something was wrong just wouldn't leave him.

He stopped and read over the list. Bread, eggs, butter, milk, milk alternatives with a question mark, spinach, whole lettuce, kale, carrots, radishes, zucchini, sausages (“chicken please I'm watching my fat”), and at the bottom, “treat yourself!!” in bold, double-underlined script. While he was fairly certain that he would have gotten something frivolous regardless of permission/lack of, seeing it as fair compensation for dragging him out of his sanctum, he appreciated the gesture. It removed the need for excuses or apologies, for one, which cleared a substantial portion of his unease. He also liked to believe that Tony agreed he was being an asshole, hence the note. Either way, it was nice.

Loki tucked the paper in his pocket and went to the produce aisle. He found the spinach, grabbed a pack, and nudged his glasses above his brows to read the expiry. Then he realized, abruptly and with an inward jolt of embarrassment, that he didn't have a single inkling what the current date was, and he spent another two or so minutes cluelessly looking for whichever number was the farthest in comparison to the others. When he located a sufficiently distant set of digits, he lowered his glasses, threw the pack in the basket, and trudged onwards to the next item, numbly thinking something about how much he loathed the universe and everything in it.

It served Loki's paranoia well to see some kid in an Avengers tee gawking at him from behind a row of fruits, and he stopped, wondering if maybe it was, indeed, only paranoia, and then almost groaned as his name was questioningly mouthed. He removed his glasses and pressed a very deliberate finger to his lips, and the kid nodded, eyes wide, and scurried off to a separate corner of the aisle, leaving him to resume his vegetable scrutiny.

There weren't any other intrepid onlookers, thankfully, but as Loki progressed mostly in order through the list, he couldn't shake the nagging urge to shift into a generic nobody and be done. With that who-knows-how-expensive coat and a proud pair of indoor sunglasses, he probably came across as just another spoiled New Yorker, as he knew had been the case the last few times he'd been out and about; thus, he didn't bother. In lieu of a more covert appearance, however, he still found himself looking almost compulsively over his shoulder, searching for that same glimmer of recognition in the faces around him, thinking again: he hated the world, he hated being here, and he hated how fragile he was becoming.

Grocery shopping was not the other thing, he silently reminded himself as he continued to the meat and dairy section. Sharing a building with former and status-unknown enemies was not the other thing, even if it felt close. Repaying just one of Tony's dozens of favours, surprisingly, was not the other thing. Knowing all that didn't soothe Loki's nerves, of course; nerves like those didn't need a reason. Still, it never hurt to try.

The bread was last. Loki got the same twelve-grain blend that had ran out, briefly considered a gluten-free loaf, as well, and then decided yes, he really didn't care; he'd had minimal side effects since breakfast and he didn't eat bread that often to begin with, so it wasn't worth it. He made sure he had everything on the list and then went to find a box of chamomile tea, which they had been sorely lacking, and some gluten- and dairy-free hazelnut chocolate, which definitely was worth the effort—all ten-odd minutes of it. Once he had those, he headed to the only till without a line and started setting things down.

“Hi,” said the cashier, a young, roundish girl.

“Hi.”

“How are you?”

Terrible. Like death had pissed on him and then kicked him into the dirt. His heart was pounding, the fog was stronger than ever, and he couldn't help but wonder if he'd misread the list and forgotten something after all. He still wanted to go home and fall asleep on his couch.

“Good,” he said. “You?”

“Good. Would you like a bag?”

“I… brought my own. Hold on.” Loki darted his hand into a pocket, summoned a neatly folded canvas tote, such that it seemed to have been there the entire time, and then gave it to her—no magic, no tricks; none that anyone knew.

Rose, as her badge named her, opened the tote, secured it under the counter, and began placing items inside as she scanned them.

Loki emptied the rest of the bin and slid her the disembodied tag. “Sunglasses,” he politely informed. “I'm fighting a migraine, so it was a little urgent. Sorry.”

Rose smiled sheepishly and scanned the cardboard slip. “Migraines suck,” she said; Loki nodded. “Do you have any Advil or something?”

He opened his mouth, stopped, and then said, “There's some in my car, yes. Don't worry.”

“Alright.” Rose looked at the screen. “Forty-seven dollars and eight-two cents. Cash?”

“Credit.”

Rose typed something into the computer, waited a second, and then angled the reader towards him. He stuck the card in, trying not to think about what would happen if someone stole a glimpse and saw, alongside the numbers, Tony's name, and calmly paid.

“Would you like your receipt?” Rose asked.

“No, thank you.”

“Okay. Have a nice day, sir.”

“You too.”

Loki took the bag in one hand, put the card with the shopping list, and stacked the bin atop the others nearby. Then he left, smiling once at her on his way out the door, insincerely and almost painfully. Oh, he hated this. He hated all of it.

At least he had tea and chocolate.

Back at the compound, Loki finally removed his sunglasses and went upstairs to unpack. He spent about five minutes in the lounge kitchen, meticulously sorting through items and arranging them in the fridge. Then he put the bread away and paused. Tony was still out, as far as he could tell, and there had been no instructions for afterwards; with that, he settled on making some of the newly bought tea, because gods knew, he needed it, and retreating to his room until further notice, as usual.

Luck had it that day that the kettle was completely drained, which upset Loki more than he knew it should have. He stood there for a moment, counted again, and then carefully dipped it under the tap and turned the water all the way on. Nothing bad happened. He switched the tap off, docked the kettle, and quietly waited for it to boil, preparing everything else in the meantime: mug, teabag, and not-milk, which he always liked with chamomile. No sugar.

When the tea was done and he was sure no one was coming, Loki got his things and padded to his room, mindful of spilling, and, after closing and locking the door, all but collapsed on his couch. He didn't immediately fall asleep, as he had promised to himself; he merely sat there, eyes closed, sipping the magically cooled tea and thinking about that wannabe Avenger in the fruit aisle or something other.

For a while, that was all there was. Though the chamomile helped slightly, his heart refused to ease up, and no matter how exhausted he felt, nothing came. He counted, taking long, steady nose-breaths as he drank: one, two, three, four, five, inhale and exhale. Breathe and keep breathing, he told himself, and he did, and gradually, over the course of several minutes, he managed to relax. The Avengers kid disappeared into the numbers and he let the mug rest in his lap, and he reclined a little more, pushed one of the cushions against his chest, and continued counting in his head, uncertainly and for an unknown amount of time; one, two, three, four, five, hold, one, two, three, four, five, hold, one, two, three…

 

He was on the Statesman.

There were no fires. In their place was a hazy, purple light, mist-like in its presence, and a cold wind dusting the back of his neck. He couldn't smell the smoke anymore, couldn't feel it, but he knew it was there; those soft clouds the shade of power were the fading remnants. Ash and broken bits of the starship littered the floor, memories of a past life torn from existence, though as he walked, he saw that there were no bodies, no blood, no discarded weapons, no signs that there had ever been a fight of any kind. It was only a ship. A plain, ruined ship.

He walked to the captain's deck, where the sprawling glass wall had caved completely and now opened wide to the stormy draw of deep space, and looked around. Nothing; only the lone clattering of some too-tightly bolted furniture struggling in the tempest betrayed any movement. He walked out and inspected more of the ship, searching for something, anything, but there was still nothing. There was the dining room, game room, rooms for files and books and archives, controls, and everything in between, and none of them showed anything.

There was dried blood on his hands, he knew after some time. Whose blood, he couldn't tell; for all he knew, it was his own. Nothing else. He kept walking, on and on, pointlessly, inquisitively, with the wind behind him and the purple smog illuminating his path, and as he walked, he felt the uncanny atmosphere of a lonely stroll in the middle of the night: streetlights buzzing, the smell of cool, evening air, the sense that there wasn't a single other person, alive or dead, in the entire world—that maybe the world didn't even exist.

And he just kept walking.

Loki wasn't sure when he woke, or how, or if he had woken at all. His hip ached from where he had unconsciously slunk onto his side, the mug was digging into his crotch, he was thirsty, and he was tired. However long he'd slept, it hadn't done a thing.

He wished he had more tea.

He staggered upright and stopped, dizzy for a moment, and then cast a squinty look at the windows. The sky outside was a pale blue-grey, sunless and marred with wispy clouds—the kind of sky that, to his disappointment, could not garner any estimate of time. Since his quaint little not-quite-a-guest-room was so neglected in its design that it didn't have a clock (which he had never actually needed until then, coincidentally), and since he didn't have anything in storage, that meant leaving to find the nearest working clock he knew, which was right around the dorm hall's corner. Twenty seconds, in and out—except he still wanted more tea, and even if that weren't the case, something else might delay him. He hoped not.

Slowly, soundlessly, he got the mug and exited his room. The urge to hide didn't fade.

When he rounded the corner and looked up, only to see 12:56 or thereabouts, he could almost feel the dismay coiling in his gut. That was a good eight hours to kill, at least—eight hours to do absolutely nothing, to stare at books or throw knives or whatever and ponder how utterly bored he was, and why, and what he could do about it, because there wasn't one thing he could think of then that sounded entertaining. There was always Asgard, but he didn't know where the camp was or how to find out, and he didn't want to go anyway; the thought felt like work. That left… nothing. All that came to mind was reading books and fiddling with bladed weapons and magic, neither of which appealed to him.

He continued to the lounge, saw that there was no one, and switched the kettle on. His bedroom lacked that, too, he suddenly remembered. One of these days, he decided, he would sneak an extra from somewhere. They wouldn't notice—and if they did, what, he wasn't entitled to an electric kettle? Less time spent out of his room, less commotions caused. He couldn't see any harm from either perspective.

Bang!

—something somewhere, the sound of something being dropped; Loki whipped around, hands instinctively reaching for his daggers, but there was nothing, as expected. It wasn't even on his floor, judging from the muted echo. Nothing. He exhaled, let his shoulders fall, and resumed his observing the kettle.

Once the water was boiled and the tea was steeped (five minutes, always), he tiptoed downstairs, cautiously balancing the mug in both hands, and went to the library. He wondered as he closed the door if he was allowed liquids there. Probably not; he was the last person who would ever spill something, however, so he figured he was alright. He took a little off the the top, just in case, and then examined each of the shelves, the words and numbers inscribed on the side.

He did not want to read. He especially didn't want to read more nonfiction; he loved it all, lived and breathed knowledge, but there was only so much he could learn before it became tedious—and only so much he could learn, period. The compound library, research-oriented as it was, didn't carry a single novel or otherwise, which he knew. He wasn't even sure why he'd entered. If he had any more willpower, he would have gone back down the route to the market and bought some fiction from one of the many bookstores dotting the way. That willpower was nowhere to be found, though, and so, he just kept searching.

Twenty-six minutes passed, according to the clock on the wall. Still nothing.

Loki thought he smelled something burning.

He breathed in, looked around, and then realized, to absolutely no comfort, that he'd imagined it; there was only the sterile crispness of a too clean, too modern room and the faint scent of whatever tea remained in the mug. No smoke, no good books.

Another five or so minutes of searching later, he left with an excessively thick summary of some politics somewhere that he didn't even remotely feel like reading (though he recognized the author, at least, as someone known for witty, amusing manuscripts). He checked again if there was anyone in the lounge, saw no one, and then continued to his bedroom, where he flopped face-down onto his couch like it was the greatest thing in the world and began, begrudgingly, to read. Next to him, the mug tumbled neatly into the space between the end cushion and the arm, forlorn but not forgotten.

 

There was nothing he didn't already know, Loki discovered, but the text was entertaining enough, as he'd suspected it would be. By the time he'd read a third of the book, though, his focus started dying and his head hurt, and the horizontal position was only increasing his exhaustion. A point came where the words just stopped meaning anything.

He left the book open and rolled onto his back, and closed his eyes.

Somewhere in his mind, the dreamy echoes of the Statesman took hold, and he lost himself in their depths. For everything they were, it wasn't unpleasant. He didn't try to regain his focus. He wondered after a time if he'd fallen asleep again; he felt absent, only partially there, caught halfway between unconsciousness and his waking fog. Then he experimentally cracked one eyelid open and saw that no, he hadn't, and he sighed and turned towards the room—and after that, reluctantly, he clambered off the couch.

The boredom was getting worse. What did he usually do for fun?

Part of him, for no particular reason, longed for a hot shower. Without meaning to, without thinking, he sleepily wandered into the bathroom. The stall in the corner looked innocent enough. It looked, now that he properly inspected it, surprisingly luxurious, with frosted glass walls and space for maybe four, five people—and for just him? Plenty. Last he'd seen of a stall like that was in Asgard, in his private suite, and it was one of those strange things he never realized he could miss until he'd gone an absurd length of time without. And that made him think: how long had it been since his last shower, period?

He stared at the tiles, a worried frown growing on his face, and counted, and he found that he couldn't remember. It had simply never been important enough to keep track of. These days, he just stuck to magic, as it was quicker, more efficient, and he could cast a cleaning spell whenever and wherever he needed, no prep, no anything else—which was why, then, he decided against the hot shower. There were better ways of freshening up, and if all he wanted was the heat—

He considered it, and he didn't.

Something about the thought made his skin just crawl.

He stepped away and looked in the mirror. His reflection glared back at him with dark, tired eyes, almost pleading for another nap. If he slept again now, though, he'd be awake all night, he knew, and that would be no better. So: no shower, no nap, no reading.

And no smoke. Nothing was burning.

 

Despite how much he didn't want to, Loki did return to distractedly skimming the book splayed on his couch, and he read another third before he truly couldn't absorb the words. That was when he closed it, sighed, and left the room.

It was 4:37.

He thought about sharpening his knives, which were dull as ever, but he couldn't find the motivation. Norway and Wakanda were both too late to visit. There was no point wasting energy on gratuitous spells. Tony was probably still out; otherwise, Loki would have inquired about that one movie and its hairstyle parallels, maybe even watched it with him. He was desperate enough.

Loki asked himself for the second time what he usually did for fun, and he had no answer.

He went back to his room and daydreamed his way through the rest of the book.

Dinner, generally, was just after six—sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Loki finished the book at around quarter to. He didn't have a scrap of hunger in him, but he still had a credit card in his pocket and a mug jammed in the couch grooves, and he didn't feel comfortable leaving either of them there, so he took both and walked down.

Sam was working on something at one of the far tables, as always. Through the glass, Loki recognized the back of Natasha's head off in another room as she dug through some files. And in the kitchen, of course, was Tony, who somehow detected him entering the room and looked up a few seconds later with the most obnoxiously smug grin imaginable. Loki couldn't decide if he should laugh or punch him.

“I hate you,” Loki said, stopping beside him.

“I hate me too,” Tony replied. Laughter, Loki decided, although all he could manage was a breathy smile and chuckle. “Did you survive?”

“No. You're currently communicating with my yet undeparted spirit.”

Tony's eyes widened. “I'm so sorry,” he said, his voice suddenly grave. “I did this to you, didn't I? I can see it now: 'Here lies Loki. Killed in cold blood by a grocery store.' I never should have sent you.”

“Yes, and you have that on your conscience now. I hope it was worth it.”

“It totally wasn't. I'm going to think about it for the rest of my life.” Tony paused, and then, without a single break in character, he asked, “Does the apparition wish to help me with dinner?”

Dinner consisted of what looked like some stew, featuring the last of the boneless-skinless chicken thighs Loki had seen in the fridge the day before. It looked… delicious, actually. “I can't cook,” he said—which was a lie, in fact, but no one needed to know.

“I can't cook either. That's why you're helping.”

Loki didn't respond. He cleaned the mug, slid it into the cupboard, and then pressed himself to the island and began tapping out a nervous rhythm on the back of his hand. Sure, he could help; he had no issues there. His issue was more along the lines of: he was almost positive something small would set him off again for no reason other than because it could. Ideally, he would avoid that.

“No, huh?” Tony said.

Loki shrugged.

“Well, I'm going to do something stupid like burn the carrots and then Pepper's going to yell at me and it'll be your fault, but yeah, if you don't want to help me”—Tony gave it a quick stir—“then sure. I hope you like the taste of burnt carrot.”

“You'll be fine,” Loki said.

“Eh. No promises.” Tony scraped a lone chunk of meat off the spoon and into the pot and then stepped back, arms loosely crossed. “You didn't steal my identity or anything, did you?”

“I didn't.”

“Cool.”

Loki fished the card out of his pocket and handed it to him.

“Uh, just put it down somewhere.”

Loki placed it on the counter.

“Sorry,” Tony said.

“What for?”

“Never mind. Hey, you're not allergic to corn, right?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Oh, good. I didn't want to use flour because… you. Yeah. Anyway, this should be another twenty minutes. Go run around the building or something. Get your appetite up.”

“My appetite is right where it's supposed to be.”

“Uh-huh. What have you eaten since this morning?”

“Food.”

“What kind?”

Loki hesitated a second too long.

“You know what—don't even run,” Tony said. “Just walk around the building. One lap.” He raised a finger. “I won't harass you for any more exercise for like, two days. Maybe even three.”

“Whatever,” Loki said, and then left the lounge.

He didn't walk around the building, but he did retrieve the book from his room and then go to the library, where he spent a minute or so determining its exact location on the shelves. Then he took something else at random, not even looking at the title, and returned to set it on his couch's side table.

He wasn't hungry. Not one bit.

After a heavy sigh and a swear at nothing, he lowered himself to the floor and did several dozen push-ups that he didn't want to do, did a few more, and then stumbled back to his feet. Save for a pitifully thin layer of sweat between his shoulders, nothing had changed; he still wasn't hungry. He told himself he'd eat a little regardless and went to the lounge once more, where he sat in the other far corner, rested his hands in his lap, and waited. At some point, he began absentmindedly braiding small sections of his hair and wondering, half-serious, if that could somehow make him feel like eating. It didn't.

The room was just slightly less deserted by the time Tony announced the food was done (and, he added, definitely edible), with the final tally coming to him, Loki, Natasha, Sam, and Bruce. Pepper showed shortly afterwards.

Loki did eat, despite his lack of appetite, and not only was it edible, it tasted great. He felt hungrier when he finished and actually went for seconds, and he was in the kitchen when—

Good hell, he didn't even know what had happened before a wave of invisible, undetectable energy whipped out of him and weakly rattled every static object in his vicinity. He froze, hyper-conscious of their settling into place, and turned. Sam. Sam had decided to get more in that very same instant, and—

“I'm sorry,” Loki quietly said.

“That was you?” Sam asked.

“You startled me.”

“Oh. Well, sorry for startling you.”

Loki breathed in and pretended not to hear the string of self-accusations that erupted in his mind. He got his food and went back to his table, alone, and ate.

A few minutes passed.

“Hey,” Tony asked him, “would you ever tell me more about the Allspeak?”

“Maybe. Not now.”

Tony nodded and resumed eating. So did Loki, and eventually, Sam.

Nothing was burning.

 

Chapter Text

The ship was still empty. In the captain's deck, the bare viewport had ceased its vacuum's tug, leaving the air stagnant, safe to cross, and although his hands were bloodied once more, the blood was wet, not dry. Something in his neck stung, like the chafing of a rope, but a tentative stroke showed only skin.

Loki found himself completely lucid this time.

He went to the cockpit and looked outside. Dreamlike as they were, too bright, too uncanny as they were, the star-speckled fields of colour lining the void appeared no less beautiful. And they were calming; that kind of unguarded, few-metres' distance between him and infinity would have terrified him in the waking world, but he felt no fear now. He almost wanted to step out, see what would happen—see if he'd snap into consciousness or just keep going. After a while, though, he simply turned and continued down the ship's halls.

There were more differences: things that became evident as he walked—dream differences, like rooms that shouldn't exist or bizarre artifacts strewn in odd places. They were curious if nothing else, and he even explored some; the damp, weed-covered library he entered at some point was one of the more interesting anomalies. He sat there for some time, waiting for something, inspecting the books and trinkets with the kind of fascination only sleep could bring. Then he smelled smoke, smelled something burning, and he stopped and looked around, but before he could discover a source—

He woke up. He heard no alarms in his head, felt no stuttered breathing or racing heart. There was only confusion and concern.

This had not been his sole dream that night, he knew, but the Statesman was all he remembered. Part of it was how recent it was compared to the other scenes; the other part, the more worrying part, was how he'd experienced that exact scenario twice in barely twenty-four hours. He hadn't had a recurring dream in years. To have one now, to see the ship of all things—not as it had been for those many months, unruined and undisturbed, not merely as an imprint of a familiar setting—was…

Bad. It was bad. That much was obvious.

Loki blinked the sleep out of his eyes and shifted onto his left side, placing the door in his upper periphery. He stayed there for a few minutes, unwilling to leave the bed and ready to sink back into unconsciousness. Then, reluctantly, he rolled the rest of the way onto the floor, landing neatly on his toes. One of his feet hit the top of his boot and he winced, stepped off, and kicked the pair closer towards the side table. And then he stopped again, lost, uncertain what to do. Yesterday's longing for a hot shower hadn't weakened whatsoever, and he wasn't hungry, and he didn't want to keep sleeping. That should have left a clear choice; when he considered the former, though, all he felt was more of that same apprehension—that vague fear that something would happen.

Stubbornly, maybe stupidly, he padded along in his socks to the bathroom and looked at the shower. No. No, he thought, felt, almost instantly. He couldn't. Even so, he went inside, clothes and all, and placed a hand on the knob. Just to see.

He tried nudging the water on to a slight drizzle: nothing that would catch him as he was, fully dressed and unprepared. And his body refused to move. He felt like he was standing on the edge of a cliff, one step, one wrong breath from falling, and he tried counting, tried convincing himself that nothing would happen, that it was only water and that he was in control of it, but still, he couldn't move. The knob stayed motionless under his fingers.

Gods, he really was being stupid.

He went to the sink, took a hard, deep breath, and eased both taps on. Then, slowly, he slid his hand under the water. Nothing happened. He waited, jaw tight, brows almost touching, for something, anything—and then the cliff disappeared from his feet and his heart rocketed to speed, so quickly his vision flashed red and a surge of nausea shot through him, and he froze, withdrew his hand, and stepped back, choking on air, struggling to breathe. No, he didn't need this, anything but this—damn it, damn it, damn it

He lumbered to the other side of the bathroom, sat on the floor, and snarled—a loud, piercing snarl from the very bottom of his chest. He couldn't break like this. Not again.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and counted. One, two, three, four, five, hold, repeat: ten cycles, and then he released his last breath, let himself relax, and leaned back against the wall. If his sense of time was to be trusted, and oh, how it wasn't, then two, nearly three weeks had gone by since the battle on Titan. Before that, on the eve of the Statesman attack—or maybe the morning, hell if he remembered—he had given himself a proper, running-water cleaning with no issues; he had savoured the warmth as it poured over him, blissfully unaware of himself, not thinking twice about the sensation, not thinking even once. And then Thanos appeared, and all the buried memories came rushing, and since then, there had been nothing.

Loki hadn't even made the connection. It struck him now as painfully obvious, this avoidance of any sort of free-flowing liquids, showers or otherwise, and he expected to laugh at himself, scold his blindness, but there was nothing. He felt no anger, none of that frustration that he'd felt upon his inability to endure the tap water touching his skin. All that followed this new explanation was plain, unaffected resignation. Magic served him well enough in terms of cleaning methods; a fate of no showers, no handwashing, no rinsing meant nothing to him. It was unfortunate, certainly, and the thought alone was more pitiful than anything, but he could get used to it. A fear of—

He refused to name it. A fear. A discomfort. A generic phobia of something utterly idiotic. No further details were necessary.

He stood and walked out of the room. His reflection glared sullenly back at him as he passed it.

How truly, sickeningly pathetic.

Loki still wasn't hungry, and he didn't feel willing to force anything down. Nevertheless, he went to the lounge, clad in only soft, black socks and the same shirt-slacks-coat he'd had on for perhaps three, four days straight. He was surprised to see that, although it was relatively early, there was no one there—not even Tony, who somehow always showed right when he did, like some dirty, omniscient little weasel. All the better; there wasn't much that could believably rationalize his low-effort outfit, for one, and he wasn't yet over the shower situation and was confident that, knowing his temper, any interaction would immediately devolve into a screaming match. No people. He couldn't be more content with that.

He opened the fridge, realized he hated cooking, closed it, and settled on an unripe banana and whatever was left of that morning's coffee. Then, bleakly, he shuffled back to his room and sat at the table, and ate.

The boredom had only gotten stronger. Most of the library's good books were gone, and there was nothing to be done with Asgard, and anything else? Peter was busy. Tony pissed him off—and who knew where he was, anyway. If he cared a little more, Loki might have convinced himself to stop stalling, journey to one of the more peculiar bookstores in the vicinity, and exchange a handful of what would likely be seen as perfectly normal currency for some novels. Forget that; he could forge an identity and set himself up with an actual, entertainment-based library, which would hold him for years, decades, until he somehow exhausted their collection and then returned to an even worse bout of boredom—and without any books to curb it. Was that possible? Personally exhausting an entire library's worth of literature? Sure; he had time to spare. If only he'd go try instead of wasting the day considering it, but alas: just the thought of dragging himself all the way there, putting all that effort towards a false self for the sake of reading, going through all that risk

He sighed and sipped his coffee. Someday soon, he told himself, he would at least make a trip to a shop, and he'd shift if necessary; he just needed to do so already, rather than prolong his suffering with more nothing. Soon. He would go soon. For now…

He didn't know.

With the mug in one hand, its rim not straying once from his lips, Loki cast two spells. First, he incinerated the banana peel, leaving only a fleeting burst of light as the fibres dissolved into pure energy. In part, he did so because he needed to dispose of it and didn't feel like getting up, and in part, because he could—because he just wanted to prove to himself that something so hilariously excessive was doable. Then, when the last of the sparks vanished, he closed his eyes, reached into his holding space, and searched. He felt around for his weapons, each unique signature, each size and shape and how their images pressed against the seams, and after some seconds, he pulled out what he knew for sure was a dull dagger and placed it on the table.

The weapon's total length was about equal to his forearm, with a dark, wooden handle moulded to his fingers, and a curved and etched blade tapering to a needle-like point—or so it should have been, anyway. Still drinking his coffee, Loki raised the dagger to eye-level and inspected it. There were chips along the blade's edge, as he'd anticipated, and the would-be needle was rounded to a stub. A lethal wound was always possible, but it wouldn't come as easily as he liked; he preferred weapons that could draw blood at the slightest touch, the faintest ghost of contact. While delicacy like that was uncommon in the heat of a battle, there was comfort in the option.

He finished his coffee, set the mug aside, and cautiously ran his thumb across the blade. The metal glided harmlessly against his skin. He tried again, pushing harder now, and still, there was only an unbroken divot in the flesh where he made contact, and he frowned. Stabs weren't affected by such a condition; stabs, if he wanted, could be achieved with a sturdy stick. It took more effort to achieve a clean shot, as had been the case with his one-off target practice in the gym, but dullness just wasn't that crucial of an issue most of the time. Not for him. Now, slashes: they weren't his favoured method of injury, and as such, he didn't employ them often. If the need arose, however—if for some reason he couldn't get away with his tried and true techniques, there would be trouble. He'd rather not take that chance.

With that boredom hanging over his head and the knowledge that his weapons were faring less than well, there wasn't much else to be done. He formed a thin, burning layer of magic at his fingertips, listening to it fizz and crackle for a moment, and then dragged them over the flat of the blade. There was a soft buzz as he moved his hand, like a distant vibration, and a rain of green sparks that floated off the side of the metal; there, they hovered briefly before evaporating into nothing. He slid past the tip in a single, swift motion and cleared the spell, and freshly examined the dagger with narrowed eyes.

The chips were gone, as was the roundness at the end, and at its thinnest point, the edge was no thicker than a sheet of paper. That degree of sharpness was usually tedious to maintain, tending to die after just a few swipes, but the material was durable on its own and the spell only enhanced it—and if it was still an issue, he had enough spares that he could just switch when the hits began straying into blunt trauma. He flipped to a reverse grip, then back again, and then he knocked at the blade with his free knuckles, making sure he hadn't damaged anything, and, content with the results, he lowered it.

He realized now that even though it seemed fine, even though he recognized an adequate grind just by looking, he didn't actually know how well the dagger would cut. Wooden targets didn't offer much for accuracy, and there were little opportunities for a field test. That left…

Loki stared at the weapon, anxiously chewing his bottom lip, musing for what felt like an eternity, and then lifted his shirt. The blade found its mark almost automatically: a spot just off-centre, off to his right side and nestled in the dip of his abdominals, somewhere he knew to be safe and comfortable and taut enough for the purpose. He pressed it to the skin and trailed it from one end to the other, to right where his waist officially began, and watched as a hairline of red bubbled up and commenced a slow trickle. There was no pain; the only resulting sensation was the feathery touch of the blood as it rolled sluggishly towards his hipbone. He watched its movement, the lurid contrast against his pallor, and then rubbed it away with a thumb. The dribble reformed in an instant, and he cleaned it again, wincing now at the delayed pull and sting of the cut. Then, quickly, he dismissed the weapon and healed the wound.

Self-healing took a different kind of energy than healing others, and self-healing, any healing, especially without material assistance, took practice—lest the treatment turn out subpar, or even fail entirely. This came easy, though; he'd had practice enough, even if he wasn't all that much of a healer, and it was a small injury. When the heat was gone and the tug of closing tissues had ceased, there was nothing but smooth, porcelain skin, unscarred and smeared with a faint line of drying blood. He cleaned it magically and let his shirt fall.

The sharpening spell still worked, thankfully. It had been months, years since he'd used it, and there had been an unconscious doubt that he remembered the details, he realized now, but there was no such thing. Lucky him.

He looked out the window. The sky was a dead, ashen grey, its measly spattering of blue allowing barely any sunlight. It looked like it was going to rain. Thor came to mind—whether things were well with him, and whether, as Loki continued to ponder, he could feel that something was wrong from so many miles away; whether the worry even occurred to him, and how frankly, it would be better if it hadn't. And of worries, Loki also had the soundly logical concern that if he went outside now, he might be caught in a downpour—and he had ways of keeping dry, of course, but he'd rather not necessitate them. As far as a trip to the bookstore, this settled it: today wasn't the day.

He summoned another dagger, a short, slim, plain-looking thing, and held it in front of him, numbly scrutinizing its form.

His air was going. Something was weighing on his body, his head, shrouding him in a breathless, dreamy state of detachment. The fog had not dissipated once since that one-off nap what seemed like so long ago; there had never been an absence of this dream feeling, this heaviness in his mind that felt no different than when he achieved lucidity during sleep. This, though, was worse. This, in another of its transient, unexplained bursts of intensity, was terror.

He tilted the dagger so he could see his reflection, almost flawlessly captured in the polished surface, and looked deep into its eyes. This was real. He was awake. There was no reason to be scared.

One, two, three, four, five.

You're losing it.

Loki swallowed, took a few long, strangled breaths, and sharpened the blade. He tested this one in the same way, in the same spot in his abs, a firm, controlled laceration that he then dutifully healed. When that was done, he returned it to storage and took out, this time, a knife—straight and single-edged, versus the two edges of a dagger. He sharpened and tested it.

Where was everyone?

Busy, Loki thought as he sent the knife away and formed a dirk or something similar to one; out being productive; doing virtually anything else than what he was doing now. It wasn't even noon and here he was, already preparing to waste yet another day. He felt restless as always, wanting to go do something entertaining for once—maybe not interact with others, but do something. And nothing was coming to him.

The process grew mindless. Sorting through and caring for his weapons, in all of its menial repetition, was strangely soothing; it seemed to him that even if he craved some other activity, he could survive a day like this. He could survive two, if needed, here between the edge of a dagger and nothing else. There was comfort there, as tiresome as it was. This wasn't the worst distraction.

He thought about the Avengers. He wondered how many still counted as such, how many had ignored whatever turmoil had occurred in the past (and no, he had no idea what it was) and resumed their original routines. Among those were no doubt Sam, Steve, Natasha, and Bruce: all regulars in the building and all clearly invested in the group's affairs. Tony, even with his constant presence and overt leadership, was rather uncertain; he was obviously a lone wolf, unable to let go of some grudge and operating fine on his own accords, and yet, he appeared the most open to a fresh start—and that responsibility surely meant something. Then there was Bucky: his status was just as uncertain, if not more. Peter, according to a snippet heard at some point or other, was definitely a member of their ranks, but other than that, Loki didn't know—how many were in the background, how many were merely lacking, whether anything was even official anymore. The only certainty was how disjointed everything was, so much as to be amusing.

Loki thought about why he was still here, and he found no answer. The day after the battle had been because he was weak, because he'd been unconscious and needed somewhere to stay until he awoke—because he had no choice. The day after that had been because Tony so insisted that he deserved to be there, that he should be there, and placating the man had been, and always was, impossible.

And that was it.

Everything after those two days had been unnecessary, unplanned, and there was nothing tying him here, Loki realized—and it was something he had known right from the start, but just as there had been no reason to stay, there had been no reason to leave. Now, he was beginning to question it. He knew, first of all, that his boredom would cease if he were to retreat to some other city, some other world, if he were to locate some of the vibrance and festivities and excitement he'd gone so dreadfully long without. He knew where he could locate them, and he knew that this was what he needed. The fear would stop. The boredom would stop. Things would be as they were.

And yet, he stayed.

He could have left that very instant, spirit himself away unnoticed and unmissed, and yet, he stayed.

He remained in his room, sharpening single- and multi-edged weapons of all sorts; weighing pros and cons, listing places he could go, listing excuses and explanations and contingencies, cycling between the table and the couch as he worked, thinking just how and what he could do. He didn't feel the time flying, and when the orange-violet embrace of dusk crept in and the lights peeking from under his door went dark, he didn't budge: he looked over once, furrowed his brows and smiled without emotion, without any semblance of joy, and continued his weapons' maintenance turned self-searching until evening, illuminated only by the pale blue phosphorescence of the half-visible, rising moon.

The rain didn't break, but the clouds dragged on into the morning, masking whatever sunlight had dawned. If it didn't rain now, it would rain soon. When Loki scampered down the stairs and out through the main entrance, heels clicking with each step, it was to an air that felt thick, menacing, almost seeping moisture, and although he couldn't smell ozone and the chill was too mild, he knew the danger—no, the inconvenience he was gambling with.

He couldn't say why he left in spite of all this. Daggers had worked well enough, so well that he'd been oblivious to the time and to how many he'd sharpened, and if he wasn't sharpening daggers, there were other things he could do; elusive as his choices seemed to be, he was sure he could find something. For all its peace, however, the aloneness was becoming unbearable as always, and for all the choices he knew were there, he couldn't decide on an alternate activity.

So he left.

He moved hastily through the streets, sidestepping and cutting corners and glancing up at the bleached sky so often and so abruptly he worried he might give himself a neck injury. The cold was pleasant and it felt good to stretch his legs like this, to feel his coat swaying against them, but the anticipation never went away completely; it only lapsed into a lower part of his mind. Wavered without withering.

The shop he entered was too old, too tiny, and filled with dusty knickknacks, the kind of shop that didn't even flinch at an offering of undisguised gold and silver from Asgard's coffers—because while he could have glamoured a pebble or some such, could have just tricked them into thinking he'd paid, it still seemed as miserly as it had seemed all the other times he'd had to pay for something and decided not to invoke foul play. Thus, here he was.

If anyone noticed him coming in, Loki couldn't tell. He slipped into the very back of the store and found the novels, found a genre, and began picking out books and stacking them in the crook of his elbow. They were tame reads, mostly, like all the classics he'd never gotten around to and whatever else happened to catch his eye, simply because he didn't know what would interest him. When the amount became awkward to carry, he returned to the front and set the books on the counter.

The clerk flicked her eyes lazily up at him and then rose from her seat, like a corpse. She pulled each book from the pile to scan, one by one, and pushed them aside. Not a single word sounded from her. Loki didn't complain.

“Incidentally,” he asked, “and I know this must be such a funny question: would you accept gold as payment?”

She halted mid-movement, drew her languid gaze away from the book in her hand, and cocked her head. The mauve curls attached to it seemed to ignore the motion. “How pure?” she asked, and finished scanning the book.

“Moderately,” Loki said. “Very high nineties, percent-wise. Coins must be strengthened if they're to withstand more than a few transactions, I'm sure you know, but these are relatively untouched. As relatively as possible.”

She scanned the last book. “Fifty dollars and seventy cents.”

Somewhere, something metal clattered to the floor. Loki stifled a reaction.

“What's the going rate these days?”

“Whatever.”

Loki formed a small palmful of coins, semi-discreetly, and slid them across the counter. She pocketed them and reset the number on the register, as if the purchase had actually gone through.

“Bag?” she asked, emotionless.

Loki shrugged and brought out his tote, similarly semi-discreetly. She either didn't see or didn't care about the glint of green behind and beneath the wooden surface.

She continued to not speak as he arranged the books inside the bag. He continued to not complain.

“You look troubled,” she flatly stated, just as he was thinking how gracious the silence was. His jaw tightened on its own accord.

“We're all troubled,” he said, and lifted the bag into one hand, making sure the angle was straight. He looked up. “You look troubled too,” he told her, only partially in jest.

“I try.” She paused. “Nice coat.”

“Thank you. Nice hair.”

“Thanks.”

Loki turned to leave.

“Feel better,” she called as the door closed on him. He raised his other hand in a slight, acknowledging wave and then trudged off.

The fear was still there, and knowing that it was apparent only made it worse. He was paranoid about it raining, paranoid about someone recognizing him—why hadn't he shifted?—and he wouldn't even remember the clerk or what she'd said come tomorrow. This wasn't too bad, though.

He thought about the rain the whole time. Nothing happened.

 

The main doors were locked and Loki had somehow forgotten the override code, and he had the suspicion that no one would buzz him in, so after some long and nonchalant scrutiny of his surroundings, he sighed and warped to his bedroom.

No fear, Loki thought as he placed the bag by the couch and toed his boots to rest beside it. No fear.

Had he eaten breakfast yet?

He considered it, and realized he hadn't. He just wasn't hungry.

He pulled out the top book, nestled himself under the fur blanket, and read.

 

Chapter Text

The rain showed sometime during the night, and it was there when Loki awoke: a soft, thin sprinkle, just light enough that it couldn't be heard through the windows. Under the mist-like curtain, the morning's slatey glow seemed wondrous, almost ethereal, but as he watched the droplets running along the glass, starry-eyed and half-upright in his bed, marvelling at the scene with sleepy innocence, his mind had to drift to the other place. Calmly. Passively. Sharply.

Water on his back. Heat to crush his breaths to the brink of unconsciousness, heat to create anger and obedience without damaging the asset. Burning without burning.

He rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow. They were only images, painless flickers of what once was, but the longer he thought about them—

Water on his back. Knives beneath his skin. Screams in his ear: “You want this. You want revenge. This is your legacy.”

There it was; his heart began slowly gathering speed and he gripped the pillowcase.

“Fight it!” they roared. “See through the pain. See the glory that was kept from you. See what you can do for us.”

It hadn't even been five minutes. Oh, gods. Loki sat up and pressed the pillow to his chest, inhaled, exhaled, timing the air with the barely audible numbers between the memories. Breathe in, hold, breathe out.

He didn't so much as glance at the windows when he finally heaved himself off the bed.

The lounge was in its usual state of abandonment, with most everyone too busy to hang around, even for breakfast. No complaints, as always. Loki felt close to tears, and had someone dared speak to him then, he wasn't sure how well he could mask them. This, as disquietingly lonely as it was, was better.

There was a largely untasted box of blueberries on the kitchen island, which didn't appeal to him, and a box of what looked like some terribly delicious oatmeal muffins next to them—and those only made him want to cry even harder; right when things couldn't get any more unfair, he had a faulty, tell-riddled glamour to deal with. He was almost tempted to try one anyway. To hell with his digestive system.

In the end, Loki ate a handful of blueberries and a single fried egg, the entire bottom of which he somehow burnt despite ample experience and precautions. (Following this, he newly understood and empathized with Tony's plight.) Coffee now would be suicide and the kettle was too empty for tea, and though he tried, though he told himself that nothing would happen, he couldn't find the courage to fill it. He could close his eyes, keep the water at a pressure whose sound didn't bother him, and pretend, just for then, that everything was fine. But no.

He breathed in. One, two, three, four, five. Breathed out. No coffee, no tea.

He cleaned whatever utensils he'd used, put them away, and retreated to his room. And then, as he made to sit, he realized that even with his back to the windows, even under the warm, weighted safety of his past's most cherished relic, the knowledge was still there. He knew what he was avoiding and he knew why, knew why he didn't want to turn, and just that, just the awareness scratching at his mind was enough. It ached him like a stab in the chest.

How had anyone ever deemed him worthy of glory?

Wearily, he packed the books into his holding space, made himself invisible, and went to the lounge once more, to one of the corner tables. He sat with his legs crisscrossed on the chair and called the next unread novel into his hands—and then something clicked into place somewhere, and he snapped his gaze up, eyes wide, and asked himself again: how? What was a coward like him to people like them?

He forced himself to relax and opened the book.

Loki didn't notice himself skipping lunch that day, or dinner. His appetite didn't show and by the time the lounge began to fill, he was already in his room, grateful that it had stopped raining. It occurred to him a little before bed, and while it was surprising, it wasn't as distressing as he'd imagined it would be. He took it with utter indifference.

The next day passed similarly: he got up, cleaned himself (and thought about how much he'd rather have a hot shower than use magic), changed his top and bottoms for once, picked the coat off the bed's footboard and put it on, and sank into the mountain of fur on his couch, as always. He cycled between novels, daydreaming, and fiddling with his knives for hours, and in that time, he still didn't gain any appetite. He wondered if he was sick.

He stayed in his room all day.

Some weak semblance of hunger finally graced him the following morning, but it was just his luck that he couldn't find the willpower to go and get something, so he did what he always did: he pulled out a book and distracted himself. That worked for a couple hundred pages; then, it really became unpleasant. Unpleasant, but not unbearable, in any case. Not even close.

Loki finished the entire novel before deciding he ought to do something. He still didn't want to leave, and he spent some time convincing himself to do so. Then the industrious, spoiled prince side of his mind suggested he try convincing Tony to bring him something, instead.

Absolutely not.

He went to sit at the table and took a pen and a piece of paper from his stock. This was a terrible idea. If Tony happened to be outside, busy, what then? How ridiculous would it look for such a mundane request to appear in the middle of nowhere?

He should have accepted the phone.

Where are you? (Answer below.)

He made the message two-way, sent it, and waited. The paper rematerialized approximately a minute later.

My workshop.

Well, then. Loki stared at the sheet, wondered for a moment if he was really doing this, and added a single, plain sentence beneath Tony's:

Can you get me something to eat?

Twenty seconds.

I'm not your servant.

And that settled it. It was unfortunate, but it seemed to Loki he would have to remain hungry the one time he actually felt like eating. He wasn't quite starving, anyway; if he was, he would go and make something himself. This wasn't that much of an issue.

He pressed his head into his arms and sighed. For a moment, he almost expected Tony to come anyway. Hoped, even. But there was nothing.

Loki sighed again and sat up.

Three minutes went by just thinking of something to do. He lacked the mental energy for another book, and sharpening whatever knives hadn't been looked at yet would work for ten more minutes, max, and anything else? He didn't know.

He reached into his holding space and searched, feeling between the assortment of items, and then pulled out a worn pack of playing cards. He spilled them into his hand and began to shuffle, slowly and meticulously, thumbing the ragged edges longer than he needed to. Some kind of solitaire might have sufficed, but even that didn't appeal to him. Honestly, just shuffling was enough; at this point, it was less about the results and more about the motion. It was all the same to him. He tried riffling, tried overhand, tried riffling again, repeating the process more times than was probably necessary, not caring too much what happened—and waiting. Waiting for a knock on the door, he knew. None came.

Loki set the cards down and stood. He paced. Sat on the edge of the bed. Stood again.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten.

Just as he was resigning to his fate, the door snapped open, and he turned, locking eyes with a very unamused-looking Tony. A small bowl rested in his hand.

“Half-finished salad,” Tony said. “It's all I have. Take it or leave it.”

Loki's mouth twitched. “I didn't think you'd bother.”

“Neither did I,” Tony said, and he gave a thin, wry smile. “Then I realized you basically never eat and I should probably get you something while your appetite's making an appearance.” He leaned on the doorframe. “How's staying in your room all day? Boring?”

“I read. I practice spells.” Loki shrugged. “How's toying with machines all day?”

“It's okay. Would go a lot easier if I had some help.”

“Would it?” Loki raised an eyebrow. “I was under the impression you prefer working on your own.”

“Yeah, usually. I just want to see you out of here for longer than 'grab your dinner and run.'”

“I'm fine.”

Tony glanced at the table. “You play?” he asked, noting the cards.

“Sometimes,” Loki said, absentmindedly following his gaze. “Would you join me?”

“I could.” Tony stepped away from the door and closed it—and Loki saw him falter, linger there for a moment. Distrust, as always; of course. “The kid's asking about you,” Tony said, walking to the table. He set the salad in one end and pulled up a chair. “Svala. What do I tell her?”

“I'm busy,” Loki responded, joining him in the opposite seat. “Tell her I'm busy. It's as simple as that.”

“What are you busy with?”

“The usual. Self-loathing and such.” Loki cracked a smile. “I'm joking. Don't look so worried. It doesn't suit you.”

Tony crossed his arms and reclined in the chair. “Your sarcasm isn't the easiest to detect,” he said. “After all that—”

“All what?” Loki cut, dropping his smile. “All what? Those episodes? They don't mean anything.”

Tony made to interject, but whatever response he'd planned vanished in the same instant. He looked away, silent for a second, then asked, “What games?”

Loki took the deck in one hand. “All kinds,” he said, lazily reshuffling them. “Some are known here. Some aren't. What did you have in mind?

“Uh… poker?”

“With two people?”

“It's not too bad.”

“Which poker?”

“Which—generic basic poker, I don't know. Five draw.”

Loki placed the cards in front of him.

“Bets?” Tony asked.

“Ever played for truths?” Loki said, more as a statement than a question. “The winning hand gets to ask something, anything at all, and the other person—well, assuming they know the definition of honour—answers as authentically as possible. Big questions, small questions, I don't care. Ask me my favourite colour if you want.”

“Huh. Okay.”

Loki skimmed a card off the top, sliding it to Tony, took one for himself in the same manner, and repeated the process, alternating until they both had five cards each. He picked up his hand and fanned it; so did Tony.

“Thor's worried too,” Tony said. He pulled out two cards and pushed them aside, face-down.

Loki placed a single card over Tony's. “That's not like him.”

“I wouldn't know.”

“Is he still in Wakanda?”

“Yeah. So”—Tony cleared his throat—“he's kinda relying on us to tell him where you're at.”

Loki replaced what they'd discarded, briefly examined his hand, and then revealed two kings.

Tony flashed him three aces and asked, “What's your favourite colour?”

“Really?”

“What? You told me I could.”

Loki paused. “It's green now,” he said. “It's been green for quite some time. Most of my clothes were that colour, and it grew on me. Before that, it was actually blue.”

“Oh, something similar happened to me.”

“Let me guess: red?”

“Yep.”

Loki shuffled and dealt. Discarded. Dealt again. Two pairs from each of them; Tony's lost.

“How do you feel about me?” Loki asked.

“I don't know,” Tony answered, and for a short while, that was all he said. He watched as Loki cut the deck, letting the cards fall from one palm to the other, fluidly, without resistance, like a spell to be manipulated. It was mesmerizing. “You did a lot for us. And… I know you've changed, but…”

“You don't trust me,” Loki said.

“I want to. You're a fascinating person and a joy to be around, but every time I look at you, I think—” Tony stopped, rubbed his eyes. “I remember… your fingers around my throat,” he said, laying a hand on his Adam's apple. “And that's so weird, isn't it, because I think Thor did that to me too, and I don't get anything around him. Maybe it's that we've had the chance to re-establish that trust. I don't know. I really don't. I'm just…”

“You're scared,” Loki said. “I know. Don't overexplain it.”

“I shouldn't be scared of you.”

“You'd be a fool if you weren't.”

No response. Loki smiled and passed out the cards.

“Do you remember,” Tony suddenly asked, “how back on Titan, Strange used the Time Stone to look into all the possible outcomes?”

“I do,” Loki said. “What of it?”

“So when that happened, uh, he came at me with this massive number—like, several million or something—and obviously I asked how many of those outcomes were good.”

Loki placed three cards on the table. “What did he say?”

“I don't remember exactly.” Tony paused, lost in thought, and then added two of his own to the pile. “About a hundred, I think.”

“Only?”

“Yeah, it was just depressing. He looked so surprised, too. Probably because you showed up. I mean, no one was expecting it. I sure wasn't.”

Loki refilled their hands. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I just… I got this suspicion later that all of those victories were because of you. He never mentioned this outright, but I think it's possible. That if you weren't in the picture, the number would have been, I don't know, one, or even zero. We would have been screwed if you didn't show up when you did.”

“That would explain why he's been so docile around me,” Loki said. “Last time we met… well, I won't bore you with the details.” Falling. Panicking. Wanting to retaliate, wanting to say why he'd been so upset and being unable to on the basis of his own pride—the weight that had settled in his stomach at the mere thought. Tony didn't need to know any of that. “We didn't really get along,” Loki finished, and he sighed and revealed two pairs: six and eight.

“He's such a prick,” Tony said. He flipped his cards. Three fives, two queens. “So, how do you feel about me?

“I appreciate what you've done,” Loki answered, taking the pile and shuffling it into the rest of the deck. “You've been very hospitable, and while I must admit that your constant concern can feel a little patronizing—and don't take that the wrong way—it's nice to have someone care. Other than that… I'm not sure.”

“Do you trust me?”

“No. I don't. I'm sorry. I'm trying as much as you, but it's not that easy. You understand.”

Tony nodded.

Loki dealt and looked at his cards. He discarded one, waited for Tony to make a move, which he didn't, and drew. “Oh. Poorly calculated risk,” he said, showing what would have been a straight. “Next question.”

Tony didn't bother turning his cards as he slid them over. “What was all that on Titan?”

“You'll need to be more specific.”

“The ice. I didn't know you could do that.”

“I can do a lot of things. You've just never seen me do them.”

“So that was magic, I'm guessing.”

Was it? Did something like that count as magic, or was it something else?

Loki thought about it. Freezing the moisture in and around him certainly seemed like a spell, but it hadn't felt like one; it had been a physical sensation from the very depths of his body, familiar the way walking or waving his hand was and requiring the bare minimum of energy. It felt as it did the last time he touched that corner of himself: plain. No sparks, no rush of power through his veins, none of the things he'd come to expect. Plain nothingness. He'd never allotted the time to examine his natal skills, didn't want to, and now that the topic had arisen, he realized he wasn't sure where to file them.

Tony waited, eyes bright.

“Yes,” Loki said. “Yes, that was magic.” It was. Divides between such things were so fickle that the entire universe could be considered some kind of magic, so there was no point struggling to draw distinctions. “Elemental and kinetic, to be exact,” he went on, and he took the cards, shuffled them quickly, and then placed them back on the table. “Not my preferred element, mind you; I'm far more of a fire person. I needed something Thanos wouldn't expect, however, and I figured impalement by ice wasn't on his list.”

“And the blue skin?”

Loki stiffened. Swallowed. His chest tightened a little and he breathed in once, long and slow, and released the air.

What was going through his head when he dared to expose himself like that?

“That…” Excuse. Excuse excuse excuse—“Just a side effect,” he finally said, and he wasn't lying, not really. Invoking Jötunn magic had cancelled his glamour, as he'd known it would. That was a side effect if he ever saw one. “There are spells that leave marks when you cast them,” he continued, picking his words carefully, trying not to let hindsight catch up to him. It had felt so freeing then; he had only cared about victory, not about letting the monster shine through, not about betraying everything he ever was. He'd felt as liberated as he had when he denied his Asgardian heritage on the Statesman. But now… “Sorry. Some marks are more obvious than others. In granting myself temporary cold immunity and control, I ended up with an altered appearance. I would have needed a different method for what I did if I wanted to avoid that, and it wasn't worth the effort. I didn't care that much.”

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Tony said. “No pun intended. You looked… awesome.”

“Thank you,” Loki said, unsure how else to respond. He'd heard many descriptors, but awesome? That was new.

They both exchanged two cards. Tony had three of a kind; Loki, four.

“Why haven't I been locked up yet?” Loki asked as he shuffled.

“It wouldn't be right,” Tony said. “Not after all that. And anyway, Thor would kill me.”

Loki shook his head. “He wouldn't. He knows what I've done. He wouldn't like it, but he wouldn’t really fight against it.”

“It still wouldn't be right. And it would be cheap. I can't do something like that while you're off guard. Which you aren't,” Tony promptly added. “I mean—look at you.” He gestured. “You could probably break my spine just by thinking it. You get my point, though.”

“Yes,” Loki said, hoping his reluctance wasn't apparent. He swore he saw some flit of new emotion in Tony's eyes: doubt, concern, he wasn’t sure. It faded before he could decipher it.

Loki realized he was staring.

He dealt, took one glance at his hand, and then rested it face-down in front of him with a barely stifled sigh of relief. He made to try the salad while he waited for Tony; he pulled the bowl closer, lifted the fork, decided he wasn’t hungry, and stuck a piece of kale in his mouth. It took him such a great effort to chew and swallow that for a moment, he feared he would throw up. Thankfully, he didn't.

Tony pushed one card aside, took one from the top of the deck, frowned visibly, and then set his cards down. Four hearts, almost in sequence but spoiled by a second three.

Loki turned his cards. Royal flush.

“Jeez,” Tony said, “on the first try?”

“Did you know it was me?” Loki asked, shuffling.

Tony pondered the question. “Oh,” he said. “The letters?”

Loki nodded and resumed eating.

“I had some ideas,” Tony said. “The Infinity Stone bit tipped me off a little. I gotta admit, though, you weren’t exactly high up on my list of suspects.”

Loki took another bite.

“I realized when we got back. Everything just matched. What you said there, what you did—the fact that you were sending me such overly-specific information. All that. I'm surprised it took me that long, to be honest. Just Titan should have been enough.”

Loki returned the fork to the bowl and dealt. He exchanged two cards. Tony exchanged three.

They revealed their hands at the same time. Tony's won.

“What's bothering you?”

That was it. That was the one thing Loki couldn't answer. There was too much he wanted to say, too much he wouldn't; where did he even begin? Was it the memories? The fear? Feeling like he was dreaming all the time, that everything around him was fogged up, that neither the world nor his body were real? Or was it this delayed shame about his true form—the one thing that had caused all of this, all the pain and grief and

Thanos and the (The?) Other and

everything else—

( oh sweet hell )

What would it change if Tony knew?

“I think that's enough for today,” Loki quietly said, lowering his gaze. He pulled his hands into his lap and started scratching at the knuckles, vaguely aware of the resulting sensation, and tried to keep himself present.

“I'm sorry,” Tony said. “I shouldn't have asked.”

“No, it's alright.” Loki gathered the cards and shuffled them. “Thanks.”

Tony looked at the salad. “You'll finish that, right?”

“Goodbye.”

“Okay,” Tony said, nodding. He stood, pushed in his chair, and made for the door.

“Good luck with whatever you're working on,” Loki said.

Tony stopped and spared an acknowledging smile before leaving the room. Loki stared after him for a few seconds, still thinking about the last question and what he could have said, thinking that maybe he could have answered it after all—that he shouldn't have kicked him out like that; that the company was soothing and it had been a mistake. Too late.

Why was he like this?

He closed his eyes and breathed in, breathed out, and opened them. With the deck on the table and only one free hand, using his other to feed himself, he arranged the cards into an old, complex solitaire from Asgard's backwaters and began to play. This would hold him for now.

 

Chapter Text

In the days that followed, Loki developed something of a routine. It went like this: he would wake a little late in the morning, miraculously just after everyone had left the building, and he would stay bundled in bed for another twenty to forty minutes before finally getting up, as he was exhausted to his bones. Once up, he would slide into the bathroom and stare at himself in the mirror, disapproving of the shadows under his eyes and the new and startlingly apparent worry lines between his brows, wondering how such a tiny mark still managed to scar his left one, and then he would look at the sink and think to himself, it's not so bad; surely I'm imagining everything? How could this scare me so much?

And then he would try to turn the taps, and nothing would happen, and he would pretend not to notice the shame and anger boiling in his heart and clean himself magically, as always.

He divided his time more or less equally: either he read, sharpened his knives at an intentionally sluggish pace, or worked to beat various self-imposed challenges in any of several card games. He spoke to no one, and in those three or four or however many days, he remembered eating exactly twice; he lived off tea for the most part, grateful that pouring an already-filled kettle out into a mug was somehow different enough than everything else that it didn't panic him the same way, and, somewhat more unconsciously, he lived off of his backup magic reserves, which were a blessing in long-term situations and sufficed perfectly in short-term situations. As unhealthy as he knew it was, he felt fine, and he didn't care, anyway.

This bothered him as much as it usually did: it didn't.

 

He was on the Statesman.

The halls were crowded with debris—piles of metal and furnishings stretching from the floor to halfway up the sides, crackling with the echoes of distant flames, shifting with every step he took. In front of him, the ship's lights dangled gutted from the ceiling and flickered at random with a low, monotone buzz. It ached something ached Smoke and muffled screaming blanketed his senses and drowned out everything else, leaving him tired, scared, feeling guilty, feeling like he hadn't done enough—

A support beam keeled and Loki jumped, narrowly avoiding the steel as it split down the middle and yawned to a sharp angle between the two walls. He stood there, heart pounding, poised to run, before turning and calmly progressing through the corridor.

He was looking for something, and it wasn't here; he knew that much. He walked on, skirting corpses (his friends) and dropped weapons on the toes of his boots, hearing an eerie nothingness as the grips hit the floor, and located where the library should have been. Not here. There was only ash and solid wall.

Moving towards the dorms, Loki found himself in his bedroom, and he closed the door and breathed in. He didn't turn on the lights; they were probably broken, and the nebulae's moonlike glow was sufficient, anyway. The fire's roar was inaudible here, and there was no ash, no scent of burning, but there was still a violet haze curling through the air and—he looked down—blood, always blood on his hands. Outside the window, motionless against the red-and-blue clouds, he saw a fleet of slim starships he vaguely recognized as the Black Order's.

On the bed, glistening under the starlight and resting in the centre of the dark, generic sheets, was the sword Anderson had made for him. Loki went to the other side of the bed, nearest to the window, and sat beside the weapon. He laid a second hand under the blade's tip and raised it high, eyeing his distorted reflection, listening to the silence around him. There was a crispness in the air, cold, clear reality, like he wasn't dreaming; like he was back on the ship after all. He could feel every atom, every second, and in the faint wrongness of lucidity, it was terrifying. Existence was bearing down on him.

Something crashed outside the door with a deafening boom, and he flinched, hunched defensively, and looked over his shoulder. Flames were leaking through the metal frame. The screams had stopped. Someone's footsteps reverberated in the hall.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Don't look

He stood and went to the corner opposite the door, clutching the sword with both hands, and pressed himself into the two edges.

Don't look don't look don't look

Thor was waiting for him. He needed to kill whoever was patrolling and get back, check if there were any escape pods left—

they're gone they're all gone there's noth( you're going to die )

He held the sword in front of him, arms, breaths shaking, eyes wide, and prepared to fight. Part of him wanted to crawl under the bed and stay there until everything around the room burned to dust, safe, hidden from any danger, but they'd see. No. No, he had to get back to Thor.

Run, dog!

No no no no no—

He took a huge, heavy breath and drove the sword into his throat.

The world snapped away, and he was suddenly in bed, his real bed in the Avengers compound, buried in a cocoon of sheets that he was squeezing for dear life. His heart was beating so fast he couldn't tell the individual thumps apart, and for that instant, that brief not-there intersecting sleep and awakeness, the cold, smoke-tinged air still tainted his senses; the phantom touch of a blade lodged between the cartilage and bone in his neck, a feeling first like acid, like an impact from a table's edge, and then comforting nothing as the spinal cord gave out; this realness, this impression that he hadn't been dreaming, how he'd wanted it to be true.

He felt disgust, and then shame, and then sorrow: for himself, for the universe, and for being in this wretched mindset again.

His eyes burned for a moment, and he shut them tight and counted, calmed himself, and stared up at the door bordering his line of sight. Not now.

Ward it.

Loki pushed the sheets off him and rolled to sit on the side of the bed.

Yes—why hadn't he done so yet? It was really rather foolish; if his room here felt so unsafe, so like he was treading on enemy ground (and he was, wasn't he?), then all he had to do was cast a protective spell. In his fear that someone would cast something such against him, either locking his magic inside his body or locking him inside the premises, or whatever else, it had somehow slipped his mind that there were other subsets and that he could use any one of them to his advantage. He was forgetting so much lately that it didn't even surprise him.

He considered doing so now, and he found it his usual flavour of paranoia—a cowardly, pathetic move that would only harm his pride. This was not suppressing FRIDAY; this was actively guarding himself from danger, and certainly, it would also be a very smart move, but he had never been one for unnecessary precautions, and warding his room would be just that. There was no danger. He was being paranoid.

This was not him.

Loki stepped off the bed, one foot at a time, landing cautiously on his toes, as always, and braced for another day of nothing. The books were running low and he couldn't remember which knives he'd sharpened and which he hadn't, and nothing else was occurring to him. Nothing else appealed. He felt the already-present boredom as a kind of headache, a stinging, urgent need to scream and punch and do something, but there it was again: nothing appealed. There were so many things he could have done, and so many he once had. He was a carver, a singer, a poet; he adored feasts and festivals of all sorts, even though he tended towards excessive introversion at them; he went out, explored and sowed chaos for the sake of chaos, did everything and anything, and he enjoyed it, and it was enough for him. Now, there was nothing. He wanted to go back to sleep and dream the hours away, and were it not for the dread of another memory, he would have.

This—something popped somewhere (the building settling, of course)—was wrong. This was not how things were supposed to be.

He closed his eyes and breathed in, one, two, three, four, five, breathed out, one, two, three, four, five, picturing a field, and then a deep, mossy forest, and then, realizing none of those calmed him as they usually did, his old palace bedroom. Soundless. Motionless. Only him and the blue sky sprawling beyond his window. In and out, slowly, steadily, until the muscles he didn't know he was tensing loosened and his heart eased its rhythm, and he released a long, final breath and left the room.

He didn't bother testing the waters.

Loki wasn't hungry, and coupled with the fear burning in his throat and the knowledge that yes, he did have some books that had not yet been read, he could find no reason to go anywhere beyond his four walls. He didn't know what inspired him to walk out—why he wasn't busy warding the room, warding himself, basking in his paranoia like a lunatic. He never knew.

The lounge was not empty: Natasha was seated in a corner, eating what seemed to be a late breakfast and gazing at nothing as she ate. She looked up as he slunk in, and he responded with a curt, tight-lipped smile and hoped she wouldn't insist on a conversation. She didn't. Good.

There was nothing in the kettle, nothing small that he could have or felt like eating, and he felt lost upon discovering this. He wasn't sure why he came down; he was even more unsure now. Natasha would think him odd if he walked out with no clearly fulfilled goal. He didn't need that.

Go back. Ward it. Stay there.

A numb, languid weightlessness drifted over him, smothering what little there was between him and the waking world, and he leaned on the counter, dazedly looking out the blur of a window, and acted like he had something to do. He waited for the feeling to weaken, saw that it didn't, wouldn't, and glanced at Natasha. Cold, calculating Natasha. So concerned about him and Asgard. So dedicated to remaining neutral. He wondered, partly him, partly that undue mistrust and fear, if she would ever go back on her promises and throw him to the wolves. He wondered if she'd been lying when she offered a second chance. His usual alarms hadn't rung, so he couldn't say. She seemed nice enough.

Buzz—and then a snap, and then nothing—something, a door somewhere, maybe, and Loki started, instinctively and unconsciously. He stood there for a moment, shoulders up, breath frozen, before he sighed, turned, and lifted the kettle.

This was even worse. Natasha would see him panic. Once was sufficient.

He flipped the lid up and stuck the open kettle under a hard stream of water—two, three seconds to fill it, icy, pressurized water, not the kind that had been—

He switched the tap off and docked the kettle.

Damn it.

If Natasha had looked his way at any point, noticed the stifled fear in his eyes, it wasn't obvious. He set a mug on the counter, tossed not one, but two bags of chamomile inside, and left the water to boil.

“There are some extras in the back,” Natasha said as Loki flopped onto the couch, “if you need one for your room.”

“I know,” he said, somewhat quieter than planned. “I keep meaning to get one. Eventually.”

Natasha said nothing to that, and for a short while, there was only the scrape of her fork and the kettle's soft whir. Then she said, “Thor's asking about you.”

“I know.”

More silence. Loki picked uneasily at his hand, listening as the first bubbles appeared in the water.

“Was I ever rude to you?” he asked. “Before?”

“A little,” Natasha said. “You were kind of rude to everyone, though, so I'm not taking it personally.”

“I'm sorry.”

Her turn: “I know.”

Loki didn't know how to respond, so he didn't, and Natasha didn't prod. He was relieved, but he also found that as tiring as it was to hold a conversation, there was something soothing in her voice, and he missed it. If she could have kept talking without expecting a reply, that would have been perfect. She only continued eating, though.

He got his tea and returned to his room.

Thus the day carried on. Loki finished two novels, stopping once in the middle to partake in the communal dinner—because he did, eventually, feel hungry enough. He ate a small portion, and Tony noticed, but no comments were made. He slept tolerably; his dreams had nothing to do with what had come before, not the Statesman, not the other thing, not falling, or else he just didn't remember the next morning. That was just as well.

Although it was tempting, Loki did not warp to the bookstore: he walked, comfortably dressed in the same dark tee and sweatpants he'd slept in, topped with that coat, of course. They looked nice enough; what did he care?

There was still that fear as he weaved through the streets—this fear that he was being followed, that someone would catch him off guard (and gods, was he), but he survived.

“Here you go, sir,” the mauve-haired clerk had said, and then she stopped and added, “You are a sir, right?”

To which Loki had replied: “It's all the same to me.”

And the clerk smiled and said, “Hell yeah. Break those gender norms.”

Earth and past experiences considered, that exchange had not been high on his list of things that could happen; it hadn't been there at all, in fact. Well, there were firsts for everything.

He read into the evening and did nothing else, and the routine continued.

Tony was out with Pepper the next day and couldn't check on him, and so Loki kept blurring the hours in his room. Things were fine. Things were fine, he told himself, even though he still couldn't shower and he still wasn't hungry; weren't those small problems? Things, in the grand scheme of his life, were fine.

Blissful ignorance.

(Until, of course, it wasn't.)

Stars. There were fields upon fields of stars: countless lights winking in and out of visibility, dusting the void's black maw as the rifts between the Bifröst opened to the wild, unforgiving expanse of the universe. No chill. No icing. No fear.

Only stars.

The lack of air soothed; it burned and ached like fifty tonnes bearing down on all sides, but it soothed—and Loki, of course, nomad's blood and all,

(or what kind of blood was it, really?)

quickly accustomed to the harshness. No: there was no chill and no icing, the closest fear of every spacefarer, like he'd heard there would be. He knew that part. He knew why.

He closed his eyes.

Deep space, he found out, smelled like a cold, empty street on an autumn evening, tinged with something fresh and metallic. It was quiet enough that the ringing in his ears seemed deafening in comparison, and it was lonely. He had never been so alone in his life. There was always something in the distance: the faint flit of some insect somewhere, the knowledge that someone was nearby—a crew member, maybe, for all those times he'd nearly, not quite touched the galaxies—but now, there was nothing.

The thin, atomless breadth of his surroundings wouldn't carry his voice any farther than his own mouth; if it could, he would have screamed, why, Norns above, every old and forgotten god out there, tell me—

Why am I still alive?

He didn't mind too much. It was peaceful here, floating unworried among the eldest fragments of existence. He liked the weight around his body—weight that would be lethal for anyone else but felt thick and comforting to him. He liked watching the clouds of red and blue and green, the stars as they twinkled, the dance of some debris across his line of sight every now and then. He liked being away from everything.

He wished it would have lasted longer.

There was pain; the silent, calming warmth of the universe was gone and there was pain, exquisite, agonizing pain, and there was noise—fight it, see your glory, see through it all, don't be selfish, kill them, make them pay—and he still wasn't dead (why the fuck wasn't he dead yet?) and he was scared and he wanted to go home, except there was no home to go back to and he didn't know the way regardless, and even if there was and he did, he was too far, and he still

wasn't

dead.

He started choking now, crying, and every move he made squeezed what little air he had out of him and it was the first time he'd ever truly panicked—not because he was going to die, no, gods, he would have done anything for that, but because he knew without a shred of doubt that the suffering would never end; that he was alone, that he would never see safety or daylight or family ever again, that he had fucked up beyond repair because he was that stupid useless piece of shit and—

(breathe)

wouldn't they help him—

(breathe!!!)

please—

And then he woke up.

The sheets were soaked and his stomach felt like someone had rammed something through it, fear so powerful it left a physical mark. His breath wasn't back yet, he was still choking, coughing tears, and he took a few rapid gulps of air, swallowed once, and feverishly tried to slow the next batch: one, two, three, four, five, until he was almost choking again, hold, one, two, three, four, five; one, two, three, four, five. Breathe. Keep breathing.

Twice now, his mind managed as he regained his air, twice now, memories, twice now, he was waking up in a panic—maybe even more; maybe there were times he didn't remember. Norns, no, he didn't need bloody nightmares, no no no—not him, not now, anything but that.

His chest still felt tight and saltwater marks clung half-dried to his cheeks, but slowly, Loki calmed himself, and he fell into the pillow, brows drawn to the tip of his forehead, heartbeat echoing, and stared blankly up at the ceiling.

Why was this happening to him?

Forget that it was something he’d moved past, that he’d happily joked about just months prior; why, he pleaded to the universe, was this happening to him?

Was this karma?

He rolled onto his side, and from there, he turned to sit on the edge of the bed. It was light out, and judging from the maddening silence beyond his room, he was the only one awake—but it wasn’t, thankfully, too early; he wouldn’t have been able to sleep again had that been the case. He wasn't too tired, either: merely a little groggy, and a little cold, although the latter didn't bother him, of course. If he pretended not to notice the tears crusted on his face, it was almost refreshing.

In the dusty, lavender rays of the dawning sun, Loki saw fit to, for once, make himself just a bit more presentable than his usual, apathy-fueled appearance. He detangled his hair slowly and meticulously in front of the mirror, refrained from trying to weigh down the curls with gel or otherwise, and tucked them as neatly as ever behind his ears; he changed into the lace-print shirt and slacks (but, as he couldn't part with and couldn't imagine parting with the velvet coat, it was obviously included in the outfit); and he forwent bare sock feet in exchange for an old, homely pair of black loafers from his storage space.

He stood there, alone, in front of the window, wondering if he should cast that ward already. It would have eased him so much; he wouldn't feel that same panic waking up, knowing that any magical harm would be impossible, and anything else, difficult. But the prospect still shamed him, and so, he didn't.

He went to the lounge. It was 6:48.

This felt a lot like trespassing.

Something snapped somewhere, and Loki jumped, spun around, and saw nothing—and right as he did, an inactive light bulb lit up, glowed for a second, and popped. He stared at it, surprised, and then sighed; he needed to get these outbursts under control.

Somehow, at 6:50, despite not really remembering how to work such machines, and despite his tremendous nerves regarding this, and despite the other thing, he decided to make coffee. It wasn't like he could do much else.

The tin of grounds in the cupboard, helpfully, had a note taped to it that said, “Three tablespoons for a full pot!” and under that, in a smaller, angrier font, “seriously if you're making coffee for everyone and you make it weak I will find you and destroy you —Tony.” Loki placed the tin on the counter, and, unwilling to incur any caffeine-starved wrath, he located the measuring spoons. He dumped the used grounds in the compost, which he found under the sink, added exactly three fresh tablespoons, checked that the pot was clean, and then, as calmly as he could, he breathed in—steeled himself, cold sweat and shoulders squared, thought: how simple, just some water, I can do this—and turned the tap all the way on, and filled the pot to the MAX line. He switched the tap off and told himself again, I can do this, I can do this, and slowly, soundlessly poured the water into the reservoir.

This took him another twenty-five seconds, and by the time he'd finished, his heart was quietly racing and he felt numb, felt his mind and the world around him fade into static, and he replaced the pot, stepped back, and tried to ground himself. Floor at his feet, sunlight through the windows, his coat against him: yes, he had all that, and he had never had that there; he was safe here, nothing was happening—nothing, except he could still feel it, like something crawling on him, pinpricks inside his skin, and even if it wasn't happening now, he didn't want to remember. He didn't want to know that they had touched him, said all those things, hurt him—

He started the coffee maker and sat on the floor, and, abruptly, began to cry. The machine's soft pittering above him felt almost mocking.

For a time, there was nothing. Loki didn't get up: he stayed there, back to the kitchen island, arms around his knees, and blocked out the sound of brewing coffee. He didn't try to stop the tears. He stood eventually, saw that the pot was only a quarter full, and sat again until it was done, which was approximately four minutes later. That was when, through his half-formed sobs, through the worsening fog drowning his senses, he got a mug, filled it and poured some milk-alternative-or-other over top (a motion he barely processed, barely heard at this point), and took it to the couch with him—and that was his breakfast, caffeine and all. He was already panicking; he didn't need this. But there it was: coffee for breakfast.

He glanced at the dead light bulb.

This would keep happening.

He cooled his drink, just enough that it wasn't scalding, and sipped it, bit by bit. Between the phantom stings of memory, the numbers in his mind cycled: one, two, three, four, on, on, on.

It would have been smart to leave before everyone else awoke, but he couldn't. He couldn't bring himself to move.

Natasha came in at some point, and she must have seen that sleepy nothingness, the way he was probably staring a thousand yards into the distance, the kitchen floor or table or something (fuck, he was, wasn't he?), because he could hear that worry in her voice when she said, “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” he replied, not looking up.

Nat didn't ask how he was or some variation thereof, for which he was grateful. She seemed to have more tact than the rest of them.

She grabbed something from the fridge, warmed it, and left, all without a word.

The building got a little noisier following that: footsteps rang in the halls, doors opened and closed, and Loki heard a few motors from the lower levels. No one else came in, though, and he managed to drink his coffee in relative peace, relative like

he couldn't stop thinking about that light he burned out, how someone would notice and they'd say nothing and just change it, but he'd still know, and he was sick of this

fear—

He breathed in, released slowly, shakily, and kept drinking. How stupid.

 

Loki stayed there for some time, thinking about everything and nothing, swearing he'd fallen asleep after a while; there was no one around, no reason to return to his room, and so, he didn't. Then the wide-openness got to him, how the morning was getting busier, and it became too much. He wandered back and sat there, instead, and his mind was still screaming ward it, what was he waiting for, but he didn't—and he read.

The hours blurred again, and before he knew it, he was through two novels, but between then, there was lost focus, blank spaces, this feeling that something was pressing on his mind, and it wasn't as much as he knew it could have been. Yet it held him, and he was content.

Natasha caught him again at dinner that night, eyes glazed and picking at his food, and he saw her worried glances at the size of his serving (he wasn't hungry) and at the way he was staring into nothing, hearing and saying nothing, and he thought: who gave her the right? And Tony, who did the same, who stole looks over Pepper's shoulder and noticed how he was dragging himself there less and less and how much he didn't want to eat and how he barely could because of this—

A fork clattered, and he was suddenly—

No, not here; not here. He breathed in, breathed out, and quietly resumed eating.

Natasha mouthed a phrase to him: “Are you okay?”

Loki nodded.

“Are you sure you're okay?”

“Yes,” he mouthed in response.

And that was that, and she returned to observing some banter between Sam and Steve. Tony still looked at him sometimes, but he refrained from any comments, as did everyone else. Loki continued his slow, uneasy bites in silence.

 

Chapter Text

There was nothing that morning.

Loki woke with a vague memory of wandering the Statesman again, and somewhere in his chest, a vague feeling of wrongness, that this was a bad day and something would happen and he needed to go back to sleep, but there was nothing more. There were no tears, no crumpled sheets. Nothing.

He stayed in bed, eyes closed, contemplating getting up. His head ached and he didn't have the strength, and more sleep then, even with its inherent risk, was tempting. There weren't any deadlines he had to meet, anything he had to be on time for, and so, there was no reason he couldn't have let himself doze. Still, reluctantly, he pushed the sheets away and stepped off the side, landing a little heavily on his heels, and then he paused, asked himself what he was doing, and sat and slumped there on the edge of the mattress.

He wondered what time it was.

He was sure he'd left a pocket watch somewhere in his storage space, and if he searched, his hunch might have proved right. It would be better than making the entire trek down the hall just to check the clock. Knowing this, he pulled the magic apart and looked. Between his absurd number of bladed weapons, however, and a smaller number of blunt weapons, a handful of various artifacts, and other, stranger items, he found no such device.

It was early. That was enough.

He wasn't hungry, and though a hot drink would have been nice, it wasn't crucial, and even if it was, he didn't trust himself enough. Those were the only incentives he ever had to leave his bedroom in the morning, and so, he stayed. He staggered upright, off the bed once more, fixed his clothes where they'd bunched and slipped in his sleep, and went that short distance to the couch.

There was the routine again: hide in the cavern of fur draped over the cushions, read until evening, rest for the night, and then repeat. What was the point of even moving?

Embarrassment. That was the point. Staying in bed all day killed a man, even if there was no further activity past getting up, and it killed his pride. It was a baseline accomplishment.

The books were close to running out, and in this rare, unfrightened state, it might have been better to obtain an advance stockpile. One day, he'd have enough that he could rotate with no dissatisfaction for it, but with most of the texts in his collection gone, burned either on Asgard or in his ship quarters, that wasn't today, and so, regular resupplying did no harm. And he liked that clerk; she was a pleasant shade of quirky, just his shade of quirky, and their two interactions had been perfect. Even if it wasn't her shift, going now would be no issue—and it really would be smart, knowing the unpredictability of his episodes.

But he didn't.

He shelved that problem for another day, formed a novel, and flipped to the first page.

The words were still fuzzy at times, and he found himself drifting, having to reread paragraphs every so often, but that was fine: he was in no rush, and lingering meant just an ounce less worry about draining his store. After a while, the stutter in his focus wasn't even noticeable. Not consciously, anyway.

The hours were lost on him; he was on page seventy-eight, and that was all he knew, when there was a knock on the door—one, two, three, in quick succession, and then two more, in case the first three hadn't been heard, and following that, silence.

Loki looked up, and, after a moment, asked, “Who is it?”

The answer was hesitant, and it was not at all what he'd expected: “Peter Parker?” There was a pause on Peter's end, as well, and then he continued, “Can I come in?”

“What for?”

“I don't have anything to do today and I was kind of bored, so I figured I'd visit. That's okay, right? I can leave if you want.”

“What? No. No, come in. It should be unlocked.”

It was. Peter opened the door, slowly closed it, glanced uncertainly around the room, and then looked to where he was lying on the couch. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Loki responded. He memorized his page and rested the book on the table. “What's up?”

“Boring Saturday,” Peter said, shrugging. (It was Saturday?) “Ned—my friend—he's busy, and I don't have any projects or homework I could do. Maybe fight crime, but… no.” He shook his head, then walked over; Loki sat up so he could join him. “Do you ever go to movies?”

“Here? No. It's been ages.”

“Do you want to? There's this neat comedy that just came out, and—I don't know, maybe we can go together. I feel weird going to movies alone.”

He should have said yes, the nagging voice in Loki's mind told him; he should have agreed. All that boredom—on both sides, all that fear that he would finish the books and have nothing else to do would have been forgotten, if only for those two or so hours. And it was Peter, for goodness' sake; Peter didn't deserve a no.

He should have, but 'should have' was never enough, and what Loki answered instead, through reckless, anxious habit, was, “No, I don't think so. Sorry. I'm just not in the mood.”

Lies. There wasn't a single waking instant where he wasn't eager to behold the arts, no matter anything else. He would have absolutely loved to go.

Well, Peter didn't need to know that.

“Okay,” Peter said. “Yeah, that works. I wasn't… yeah, I don't feel like going that much, either. I'm just trying to decide on something to do.”

They both were.

With no answer between them, Peter sloughed off his bag and placed it on the floor in front of him. He did the same with his shoes, and then he brought his feet up under the pelt. “This is nice,” he said, running his fingers through the fur. “This is very, very nice.” He lifted a corner for a better look and asked, “Is this real?”

“As real as can be,” Loki said.

“That's so cool. Where did you get this?”

Loki thought about it, and he realized he wasn't sure. “I don't remember,” he said. “Some hunting trip many years ago, back when I was young. It was my kill, so I was entitled to the pelt. And the bones, if I wanted, but I didn't. I had it cleaned and lined, and I've had it ever since.”

“I love it,” Peter said, pulling it over his shoulders. “What kind of—what is this?”

“I don't remember,” Loki said again. “Some large beast. Whatever it was, you can't find them here.”

“And you killed it yourself? That's—” Peter stopped, lips tight, clearly trying to find the right word, and, clearly having failed, he resorted to the same, “That's so cool.”

“You flatter me,” Loki said, smiling to himself, and he shook his head and added, “It wasn't so hard. I used… a bow, right. I think I enchanted the arrows—felling something this big with just a bow and arrow is ridiculous—but other than that, it was nothing special.”

“Take the compliment,” Peter said with a brief laugh. “It's special for most people here; they don't just go out and get something like this.”

“Oh—yes, I suppose you're right,” Loki said, nodding slightly. “Thank you.”

And then, something even more unexpected than Peter visiting: “Hey, have you ever painted your nails?”

Loki blinked.

“I guess not,” Peter said.

“No, I have,” Loki quickly corrected. “Many, many times. I'm just surprised you asked.”

“Wait, so—you have?”

“Yes!” Loki smiled again. Really: no one ever asked. They wouldn't dream of it. “Once,” he continued, “you never would have seen me without black nails. It was my signature for centuries.”

“What changed?”

There, the enthusiasm died and was replaced by honest curiosity and confusion. What had changed?

“I was too busy,” Loki said. “I couldn't find the time, and I didn't care enough to search. I had greater worries.”

Peter nodded, saying, “That makes sense.” He paused, contemplating something, and pushed the blanket behind him with a thump. “So, see”—he stooped to search his bag—“the reason I was asking was because I got some yesterday for something. If you want to try it with me.”

“What colours do you have?”

“Light blue, dark blue, green, purple, and red.” Peter sat up again and showed a handful of tiny bottles. “I didn't get black. Sorry.”

“No, this is fine. This”—Loki snatched the green polish from him—“is perfectly fine. You're amazing.”

Peter beamed.

“I'm just gonna do my toenails,” he said, removing his socks with one hand. “I don't have the courage for fingernails.”

“It comes with repetition,” Loki said. “It took me ages to accustom.”

“Did anyone ever insult you for it?”

“Not, not really. It's just that I always stood out and I was reluctant to add to that. Small worries, in any case. I got over them.”

“That's good.” Peter set the bottles next to him, picked up the light blue. “It's not like that here. People make fun of you if you're a guy and you do something like this.”

“I know,” Loki said. Oh, he knew. Every time he'd visited, no matter the location or the era, the rigidity was there: men can't do this, women can't do that, here is your place, here is who you must be and who you shall love, and if you go against it all, there will be hell to pay. Earth was so keen on complicating everything. He found it backwards then, and he found it backwards now.

This went unspoken, but Peter was perceptive, and the lack of insults re painted nails had already implied it. “Asgard sounds cool,” he said. “I wish it was like that here.”

“It'll come,” Loki said. “You've made so many improvements in just these last few decades. I think your generation will be the one to solve this.”

“I think you're being too positive.”

“Maybe. But it's good to be optimistic, even if you doubt the chances. Strive for the best regardless. That's how you change worlds.”

“Well, I'm gonna start by painting my toenails.” Peter unscrewed the lid, wincing a little as he adjusted to the acetone smell. “Maybe next time I'll do my fingernails,” he said, half to himself. Then, just like that, he was gliding the brush across his toes, gently, with a precision like he'd done it before; thin coats, like he'd done it before. He probably had.

This was not how Loki thought he would spend his morning. He wasn't complaining, though—not one bit. He kicked his socks off and started moving down each of his toes, just as carefully as Peter.

They didn't say much, which was fine. Loki finished his first coat, waited for it to dry (which took no more than a minute, curiously), and did a second. When that dried, he stopped, took another minute to think, consider his next course of action, and continued onto his fingernails. He wasn't Peter; he most certainly had the confidence for it, and if anyone had any untoward opinions, that was their problem. It wasn't like he had anything better to do, anyway.

The green was metallic, glittering at a specific angle in a way that was reminiscent of a jewel, or maybe a jewel beetle. It wasn't black, but Loki loved it just as much. He set the bottle aside and tilted his hand, wiggled his fingers, watched the colour shimmer in the light, and for a moment—

one old, gut-wrenching moment, though it wasn't black, though it wasn't the deep midnight of dark blood—

Ah.

That was why: dark nails had reminded him too much of what lay beneath. There was the reason he hadn't reclaimed the ritual when he found the time again.

“Is something wrong?” Peter asked.

“No,” Loki said; coward, said a little voice in his head to match him. Coward, and a liar. Coward, as a forgotten anger and shame bubbled up inside his soul, as he felt the hopeless frustration wreaked by an unalterable truth that yes, he'd gotten over, that yes, these days, was simply one of those things that made him so unique, but that was always, always the root of it all—

He breathed in once, released slowly.

These were old wounds. They had healed. They couldn't hurt him anymore.

“Let me see,” Loki said, hoping to distract them both, and Peter stuck his leg out with a wide grin.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Flawless,” Loki said. “And a wonderful colour; it makes me think of a summer sky.”

“Oh, thanks! Yours is good too. Green suits you.”

“I've heard.”

Peter made to return the bottles to his bag then, and he did, but he fumbled the purple and it clattered to the floor—“Shit!”

Snap: shoulders up, magic drawn—

and then nothing as the glass was found to be intact, and a sigh was had, and Peter placed the bottle in one of the canvas pockets, next to the others.

Loki forced the magic down, took another long, steady breath, and handed him the green.

“Thanks,” Peter said, tucking it in the pocket.

Loki smiled: you're welcome.

How lucky that this wasn't Tony; the facade wouldn't have held for even a second.

Had Peter, smarter-than-he-seems Peter, who, while not so good at reading between a god of lies' lines, was still just as well-versed in visual cues—had he looked in that one instant that it took to realize there was no danger, he would have caught an ocean of terror in those eyes, a hitched breath and tensed arms, legs, everything screaming: this is not okay, I need to run, I need to run now, I'm going to die here, the universe is coming for me—

But he didn't.

And Loki felt no relief.

This lie—and it was; a lie by proxy, by omission, by Peter not seeing that side of him—offered no comfort. It felt like he was betraying himself.

Natasha's question rang in his ears: “Are you sure you're okay?” And the answer: “Yes.” The hiding, some innocent, desperate inch of his mind cried, was getting tedious. This lie would prove fatal someday. Somehow, though, he didn't care.

“Okay, painted nails,” Peter said. “Now what?”

Sit and do nothing. Read a book. Sharpen knives.

Same old.

“What do you want to do?” Loki asked.

Peter shrugged.

“Did I”—a door slammed downstairs; Loki winced—“ever show you any more magic?”

“Not really,” Peter said. “I saw you do that stuff with, uh, telekinesis, and I saw you teleport once, but that's it.”

Heart racing. The sensation of drowning: chest tight, something creeping up his throat—breathlessness, a void weighing on his lungs, his mind, this feeling that—

“Do you have any spare metal? Say”—Loki gestured vaguely—“an empty can, pen, something like that?”

—the charge was set, and he was only waiting, waiting—

“Yeah,” Peter said, “yeah, I have some foil left from my lunch. Would that work?”

“Yes, that would be perfect.”

“Okay, hold on.” Peter reached into one compartment, then another, frowned, reached into another, and finally pulled out a crumpled sheet of aluminum. He passed it to Loki.

“Now, normally,” Loki said, further compressing the foil with one hand, “I wouldn't have a reason to do this. It's useful for surveillance, but that's it—and, well, I can do that without materials. You deserve some extravagance, though.” He whispered an unstructured string of words to himself, to the crinkled foil in his hand: life, listen to me, move, breathe this energy, live. There was a more formal method, and a more formal spell that he might have recited, but, though he'd used them, yes, they were just guidelines. This was a party trick: he didn't need much effort; just a little goading, some meaningful intention. “Watch my hands,” he said, and he held the foil with one, palm-up, a few inches over the blanket, and hovered his other above that.

Heart racing, a weight, a headache—

Loki sparked his free hand's fingers, bright emerald twinkling against the aluminum surface, and then the lights fizzled out and he stopped, scrunched his brows, and killed the magic.

“Sorry,” he said, and he murmured the same words, formed the same spell. “I'm just tired. These things are the first to feel the effects.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “Okay.” And he waited patiently.

The sparks stayed this time, and, after a flick of a finger, a tap tap tap in the air, they sank into the foil. There was a flash of white, green, and then a tiny, metallic snake slithered out from Loki's palm and onto the fur blanket. It regarded them both with its beady, silver eyes.

Peter nearly squealed. “Oh my gosh,” he said, scooping it into his hands. “How did you—what did you—what?”

“Simple animation,” Loki explained. “You take something and alter its rules, alter its shape, and instruct it on how to act.” The snake nudged Peter's thumb, poked an aluminum tongue at it; Loki smiled. “I made this one friendly.”

He didn't need the foil, Loki told himself while Peter laughed and guided the snake onto his arm; he had created such things, better things, out of far less, with nothing more than some loaned magic and one, two turns of his wrist. This was just for show.

Except: he really was tired, and his mind was still so hazy that he wondered if he could do anything grander than a small pet from a pre-existing material—if he could make it self-sustaining, which was and should have been the most uncomplicated process in the world. Peter would have loved it. Except—

every sound, every movement was too much—

He tugged his socks back on, tried not to think about it; tried breathing in, one, two, three, four, five, breathing out, the way he always did; tried to convince himself there was nothing, that he was safe, that for goodness' sake, he was with Peter, there was nothing.

“Is it just metal?” Peter asked then, and Loki looked up at him. “Or can you use any material?”

“Any material,” Loki said, “or no material at all. Liquids are the easiest to work with, but—”

But.

“—but metals function similarly for the purpose of such spells.” He couldn't feel his voice as he finished the sentence, and he couldn't feel it when he continued. “They're rather fluid themselves, aren't they?” he said. “Symbolically, practically. Some materials, by nature, are more receptive to magic, and most metals are among them.”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” The snake twisted around to Peter's shoulder, his hair, and he gave another high, ecstatic laugh and whispered to it, “You are utterly adorable.”

There was something else after that, and something else, but Loki didn't hear the words. He could remember

fear, drowning in fire—

chains so tight for so long that the skin beneath was raw, sliced away in jagged bruises and scrapes—

(was Peter looking? No, no, he wasn't—)

Breathe in, breathe out. The blanket was piled over and around him in such a way that nothing was really obvious, that the heavy, strangled air couldn't be seen—that when it hitched and he was choking for a moment, when he swallowed hard and closed his eyes, focused only on the numbers, it was all hidden. And—

oh, gods, it wasn't working—

he was still choking, barely breathing,

burning, bleeding out, his blood and his tears and sweat on the blades and he couldn't see through the pain and all he could hear was stop fighting us, stop, fight the agony, fight them, not us, not us, this is your purpose, this is what it takes—

“Hey—” Peter.

“I'm fine,” Loki said, “I'm fine, I just—” Need a moment—

“Is it another flashback?”

He shook his head, but oh—

Peter was perceptive, and he said, “Just keep breathing, okay?” His voice was calm, even. “Just like that,” he said. “I know it's scary, but you're alright. You're safe here.”

“Thank you,” Loki managed between breaths, a little too rushed, a little too quiet, “but—”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

Ignore him and just go away. Carry on. Carry on. “I don't—I don't know, I think I just need to—something.” A stab in his gut, an itch somewhere, and he sank even deeper into the end of the couch, hands pressed to his cheeks, temples, breathing in until his chest hurt, breathing out until there was no air left, counting: one, two, three, four, five. In and out.

Peter didn't say anything more, and the snake climbed down from where it had perched behind his bangs and slithered into his lap, watching with those same mindless, innocent eyes.

The thoughts didn't go. They never did. But, gradually, the panic weakened and the phantom bonds faded, and Loki swallowed again and released a long, final breath. He looked at the far wall, unable to face Peter.

“I think you should leave,” Loki said, a slight quiver to his voice. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I love your company. I think… I just need to be alone.”

“Okay,” Peter said, nodding. “I get it.” He stood, letting the snake retreat into the fur, and slung his bag over one shoulder. “I hope you feel better. That was fun.”

And with that, he walked out of the room.

For a long while after Peter left, perhaps ten minutes, or maybe twenty, thirty, there was nothing. Loki stayed there on the couch, numb, too tired to even move, to even look away from the far wall, and let his mind blank. There was no fear, no shame, no anger. Just nothing. He felt no desire for anything else.

When the while passed, Loki stood, conjured what materials he needed, and set to work protecting his room.

Chapter Text

Every so often, in the small hours of the morning when everyone else was sound asleep, Tony would find himself wandering the building. Sometimes this meant a short walk from one end of a hallway to the other; others, he'd work on some sundry new device in his lab, and he usually did. He was a night owl, as most knew, and the nights he spent huddled alone, coffee in hand, music on (low, of course, lest he wake the others), sorting through mechanical bits and pieces, were some of the most cherished nights he ever saw. He found comfort in his creations, even if they ended up not functioning, even if he later disassembled them and decided the effort had been pointless, even if all he did was tinker for the sake of it. The process was soothing.

This particular night wasn't such a time; there was no urge to build, none of that drive that always came to him at these absurd hours. This time, when he still couldn't settle by three, he quietly snuck out of bed, mindful of Pepper's blissfully easy rest in the opposite end, and headed down to the lounge.

This was a movie kind of early, early morning, Tony decided, and the largest TV in the compound, larger even than the one he had personally installed in their room upon arrival, was situated in the far corner of one of the main common area's many alcoves, somewhere between the lounge and a storage room. It was intended for video conferences and had been used time and again as such, but lately, no one really bothered, least of all Tony, who had long since wiped most of the firmware and replaced it with something capable of running Netflix. As far as he knew, no one minded; hell, he'd seen various residents binging shows on-duty, which… well, he tended to do the same. Sorry, not sorry, he would say. He usually made up for the work, anyway.

He reached under the stand, pulled out the remote and a pair of wireless headphones, and sat at the back of the table. After some five minutes of scrolling, he settled on an action flick he'd never heard of and pressed play.

The logos were still on when something large and heavy shattered in the kitchen.

“Shit!” echoed Loki's voice; Tony froze in his seat. He paused the movie and waited, listened, but there was nothing more.

Against his better judgment, Tony took the headphones off and called, “You alright?”

No answer came, though he swore he caught a gasp, some panicked sound made under the breath, and his brows crinkled upwards in concern. Knowing Loki, it would be best to pretend nothing had happened and carry on, but once again, his judgment failed him; he couldn't help it. Slowly, hesitantly, he made his way over.

Loki was crouched on the kitchen floor, hands pressed to a broken mug, trying and failing to cast some spell. A puddle of tea covered the tiles around him, and in the dusky, blue haze of the room's emergency lights, there was a dark patch visible on his shirt, as well.

Tony tried to think of something to say, and, finding nothing, he only frowned uncomfortably to himself.

“I'm sorry,” Loki muttered, not looking up. “I'm sorry. It was an accident, I didn't—why are you awake?” he snapped. Where his eyes were still locked on the scattered porcelain, there was a brief glint of fear, anger, something, and Tony's frown only deepened. “I thought I was alone,” Loki said. “I thought—why are you awake?”

“Um… I couldn't sleep,” Tony answered, truthfully.

“Oh, that's just—that's great.” Loki dared to face him. “You're just going to stand there and watch me make a fool of myself, are you? Great. Keep going. Go wake everyone else while you're at it.”

Tony sighed and knelt beside him. “It's a mug,” he said, “not my firstborn. Here, lemme—”

“Don't touch me!”

Tony drew back, hands raised.

Loki stared for a moment, shoulders tensed, eyes wide, and then returned his gaze to the glistening floor. The magic at his fingers flickered for a few seconds, cycling between shades of green and nothing, and faded. He forced himself up and into the counter's corner.

“Deep breaths,” Tony gently reminded, standing. He remained by the mess, with about a metre separating them.

“It doesn't help and you know it,” Loki said. “Why are you still here?”

“Same reason as you, isn't it? I told you, I can't sleep.”

“Why aren't you in your room?” Loki hissed.

Tony stopped, surprised but not startled by the outburst, and arched a brow. “I didn't want to wake Pepper,” he explained. “I didn't expect to run into you.”

“Get out. Get out, I don't want you to—” Loki inhaled sharply. “Get out,” he said, green sparks dusting his hands. “Please. Leave me be.”

“Like this? No. I can't.”

Loki gave up on arguing then, and his gaze drifted to the unclear space in front of him: somewhere interceding the fruit bowl on the kitchen island and the corner where the two couches met, where a small, shared side table filled the gap. He swallowed once, audibly, and tried steadying his breathing, five seconds each way—failed, closed his eyes, whispered, “I should have let him. I'm a coward.” He cupped his hands around his mouth. “I should have let him. I shouldn't have run. Norns, why did I run?”

“Stop,” Tony said, taking a step towards him. “You're making it worse, Lokes. Stop.”

“No, I'm not. I'm not. Leave me alone, Tony. Please go away.”

“I'm not leaving. Not until you calm down.”

“I'm fine!” Loki growled, tearing his hands away and glaring up at him. “I'm fine. I'm calm. Get out.”

Tony didn't move, and from there—

There it was: the acidic bite of alcohol. He knew it so, so well.

They didn't keep drinks in the building; common courtesy, per his request. He was curious, for one, as to where Loki had gotten any, and then there was the other problem: reminders killed him. Reminders like this, in a scenario like this, to a person like this, killed him twice. He couldn't describe the sting he felt then if his life depended on it.

Another second passed.

“Can I clean this up?” Tony asked, gesturing to the spill.

“No,” Loki said, shaking his head. “No, I'm going to—I'll fix it, I just need a minute.”

“What, the mug?”

“Yes. Yes, I'll fix it. It's simple magic.”

“You don't have to, Lokes. Just—”

“Don't touch me,” he whispered, pressing himself deeper into the corner. “Don't touch me. I've been good. I've—” And then, just like that, the Allspeak snapped off: “Verið góður,” he finished, trembling as he spoke the words—or so they might have been; the panic was clouding them, and Tony certainly wasn't fluent in Asgardian or whatever else he swore it sounded like. Loki sucked in a shaky breath, another, breathed out, and there, again, the spell did not return: “Ég'f verið góður.

Context and his spattering of almost-fluencies considered, Tony was confident that yes, that was merely the prior sentence. There was the other part, though, and it worried him even more; “No one's touching you,” he said. “Breathe.”

“I'm breathing. I'm breathing, Tony, I'm fine.” Loki crossed his arms and shot another glare at him. “I'm fine.”

“You're not fine. You're hyperventilating and talking to yourself in another language—”

“Oh, dear,” Loki said with a pained laugh. “I didn't even notice. It sounds like… Icelandic, yes, that's what it is. Maybe like some dialect or—” He looked away. “It should have translated, same as the rest. I must be really out of it.”

Tony took another step towards him. “Stop,” he said.

“Don't touch me,” Loki whispered again. “Please don’t. I can—”

I can feel them, he would have finished, although Tony would never know this; I can feel them tearing into my skin, I can feel myself burning, and if you touch me now, I won’t be alright. He would have liked to say this, but the words hung there in his throat, unspoken. The message, though, was obvious: his pleading eyes conveyed it clearer than anything.

“I'm not,” Tony said, and his hands went up once more, open-palmed, both a gesture of peace and a reassurance that there was no contact. “I'm not, Loki.”

There was another beat of silence then, and Tony waited, wondering if he ought to leave now, if things would get better on their own—if he really was making this worse by being here. A small, cynical part of him knew that wouldn’t be the case: this would get worse either way.

The silence turned to two beats, and then three. Loki sat where he stood, knees to his chest, and stared at the puddle of tea.

This would keep happening. They both knew it.

From Tony, there was a familial, simplistic sort of concern: he wanted to help, he didn’t know how, and he knew he wouldn’t be allowed regardless. And on Loki’s side—

The stitches in his mind were ripping, and he was praying it didn’t appear as bad as he knew it did, only for the universe to say: no, here you are; lay yourself bare for once and know that you cannot hide forever. God of lies he may be, this lie was breaking, and he was scared, begging for shelter, begging to mask this one thing again as he always did, and here the universe was; he was falling apart too quickly to fill the cracks left behind, and his raw soul would only become rawer.

Run, his mind was still screaming—run, at every hour, every minute, every breath, as soon as he woke, run before it was too late—

but here he was, and the clock was long ticking; here he was for all to see as he faded into nothing, miserable, unworthy, not enough of a fight in him to even be permitted into Valhalla when that day came—

(and didn’t he always know, in the deepest, darkest crevices of his mind, that no matter what he did, no matter how he died, he would still never be permitted—)

Here he was. Here they were both. These incidents would not stop.

Loki didn’t say this either, but in that moment, with no uncertainty, he would have preferred an instant death there and then to such a slow, agonizing wasting—and, as the universe would have it, this message was just as clear to Tony as the other one, although he made no comment on it. These things were better left unspoken.

“Will you calm down if I leave?”

Ég mun ekki líða svo niðurlægð,” Loki answered, which told Tony absolutely nothing.

“English?” he meekly requested.

“No,” Loki said, “but I’d like you to.”

“Oh,” Tony said, and here, his judgment failed him a third time. He couldn’t. It felt like turning his back on him.

Loki stood; his hands stayed to his side, fingers taut and glowing faintly.

Neither of them could say what happened next. There was—

a sudden sound, a sudden move, something somewhere that screamed danger, run, run now, little god, run before they catch you—

and there was suddenly—

his reflexes taking over, his lifelong instincts acting for him, making sure no chances leaked through his defences, that no outside attacks were left to the point of no return—

and the magic in his soul flared, and suddenly, Tony’s tee was alight with a forest of tiny emerald flames, he was yanking it off with one clean, hasty pull, like this wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, and then he was shirtless and observing a burning lump of fabric on the counter, all the while remaining bizarrely, maddeningly composed.

It was too dark to tell, but Loki swore he saw singe marks on his chest, and that was enough.

Norns, I don’t deserve you, he made to say; I don’t deserve your kindness: look what I’ve done with it. In his panic, though, the words that left him sounded instead like, “Ó, Nornir, ég á ekki skilið þessa góðmennsku! Horfðu á mig. Sjáðu hvað ég'f gert við það.” And then, something a little more universal: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, please—please look at me—I’m sorry! I’m—scared—look at me, you know that, I panic so easily—don’t hurt me for this, Tony, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to—why won’t you look at me? I’m sorry. I’m”—an abrupt sob wracked him—“sorry. Please forgive me. It’ll never happen again. Please. Please, Tony. I’m sorry.”

Steve Rogers would have had a field day with this.

“I know,” Tony quietly said. “I know, Loki. I get it. It was an accident. I’m not mad.”

“No—no, I hurt you. You're burned, don't tell me you're not, look—”

“I'm fine,” Tony assured.

“But I still did this and—”

“You're upset. I know.”

“I just wanted some tea!” Loki hissed, face red. “And I couldn't even do that—of course I can't, what did I expect?—and you must be thinking, how did this happen, how do I just drop it? What happened?”

“Um… it was… too hot when you lifted it,” Tony said. “Your hand slipped. I don't know. Does it matter?”

To Loki, who knew very well that the answer had been something far, far more inane, it did. It mattered so much.

“I can't even—” He sank to the floor again, head in his hands, and wailed another foreign string of self-deprecation. “I'm—trying so hard, and I can't, and—you're not going to shut up about this in the morning, are you? Oh, gods.”

“No,” Tony said. “These things happen. Why would I do that?”

“I don't know! Why do you do anything you do? You don't need a reason. It'll be—Titan and that time with Rogers—it'll be that all over, won't it—”

“Loki, stop.”

“I'm just—I'm just… so… tired,” he softly finished, tears in his voice. “I was fine without him. I wasn't like this. Look at me now. All that progress for nothing.”

Tony stepped away from where his shirt's last threads were still smouldering, skirting the debris on the floor, and said, “This was my fault. I shouldn't have… um…”

“No,” Loki said. “No, don't apologize. Not to me. Please don't.” He breathed in, held, and breathed out. His fingers lit up again, but it was controlled this time. He looked up at Tony. “Move.”

Tony took another few steps back.

Loki went and knelt in front of the mess. He tapped the puddle once, and the liquid evaporated into a thin, greenish mist, leaving only the scattered pieces of porcelain; those, he shrouded in the same green light, and then he flicked his wrist, and they floated together and regained their shape, with only a brief phosphorescence where the breaks had been to signify any damage. He watched the glow until it vanished completely, took the restored mug, and placed it on the counter.

“Impressive,” Tony said.

“Don't patronize me, Stark.”

He flinched. “I wasn't trying to. I just… thought that was pretty cool.”

“Are you going to leave now?” Loki asked, glancing sourly at him. “I'm calm. Get out.”

“Your hands are still glowing.”

“Yes, they do that sometimes. Thanks for noticing.”

Tony didn't respond.

There was a box of tea by the kettle, forgotten there in the chaos, and Loki studied it for some several seconds, eyes hazy, lips pursed, mind locked in bitter deliberation. The magic in his hands slowly disappeared and his breaths started coming a little easier, but the dread stayed.

“I'm just tired,” Loki said, picking each word with a lifetime's expertise, as he took a fresh teabag out. “You get clumsy when you haven't slept. That's how it is.”

Tony nodded.

Loki checked the mug for any missed damage, saw none, and dropped the teabag in. Carefully, with a slight, trembling hand, breathing long and steady, he lifted the kettle and poured what little hot water remained over top, and then returned the kettle to its dock.

“Better hope my hand doesn't slip,” he said, expressionless.

“And what if it does?”

“Then that'll be unfortunate, won't it?” Loki leaned on the counter, sparing a short, sullen glimpse at the ash in its one end, and began numbering the seconds. “I know what you're thinking,” he said, eyes narrowing. “I know that look.”

“What?” Tony's brows scrunched. “What look?”

“If you tell Thor I've been drinking, I'll break your neck.”

“No,” Tony stammered. “No, he'll never know.”

“Good,” Loki said, and he faced the mug once more, watching the steam rising out of it. “Not that it matters; he never really saw it as a problem. Hell, he's somewhat of a drunkard himself. Still, I don't want to risk him worrying.” Pause. “He would, you know. He hated me for a while—wanted me dead, I think. But that's over. Now he's just… Well, you wouldn't understand. You're an only child, aren't you?”

“Yeah. I get it, though. I'm like that with my friends.”

“It's always easier to lie,” Loki said, closing his eyes. “People tell you about hard truths and easy lies, and the hard truth here is that it's all like that. There are no easy truths.”

“Um… do you want to talk?”

“No, thank you. Oh, see—” He snorted and looked over. “Now I'm worrying you with my drunk musings. Do me a favour and forget I said all that, will you?”

“I can't make any promises,” Tony admitted. “I'll try. Hey, weird question: uh, I was gonna watch a movie, and I was wondering if maybe you wanted to join me. It'll take your mind off things.”

Loki shook his head. “It might, but I really am tired. I'll go back to my room. I'll… I'll do something. I might still be able to fit in a few hours of sleep.”

“Are you sure you don't want anything? Sleeping pills?”

“I have wine and chamomile tea. I'll be fine.”

“That's not…”

“I'll be fine. I'll—I'll sharpen some knives. That'll tire me out.”

“You're going to sharpen knives,” Tony repeated, squinting in disbelief.

“Simple physical labour,” Loki explained with a weak, one-shouldered shrug. “Or magical, I suppose. That's my usual method.” He sighed. “It doesn't matter. I've got quite a large collection, so I should be able to exhaust myself.”

“I'm sorry this happened,” Tony said.

“Don't be. Just… don't bring it up. Same as Titan, same as when I snapped at Rogers. Please. I'd like to at least pretend I've got some dignity left while I'm here. Has it been five minutes yet?”

“Two.”

“Close enough.” Loki tugged the teabag out, taking extra care to avoid splatters, and tossed it in the trash. “This never happened,” he quietly said, taking the mug with both hands: one on the grip, one underneath, fingers encircling the base's cool perimeter. “This never happened, Tony. Don't bring this up. Do me that much, please.”

“This is between us,” Tony reassured, nodding faintly. “Rest easy. Or try, I guess.”

“Enjoy your film,” Loki said, emotionless.

“Enjoy your knife-sharpening.”

Loki stood there for a moment, robbed of his focus, then walked past him. He moved softly, stepping on the tips of his socked toes, eyes on the mug through the entire route to his room. It didn't spill once.

For a while, Tony didn't move. He couldn’t. There was nothing; how did one act after something like this?

He looked at the charred specks of cotton, casually swept them into the sink, and hoped no one would notice.

The movie was still paused, and he thought about continuing it, but now, it seemed unappealing, tasteless, even. Loki…

He breathed in. “FRIDAY? You still dead in there?”

“I am,” came her tinny response from the ceiling speakers.

“Shit.”

There was no jibe this time about how soft he was, or how it was cute how much he worried; she simply said, “I'd check on him if I were you.” Then she went quiet.

Tony turned and walked after him.

He found the door, knocked thrice, and waited, hands awkwardly buried in his pockets.

Silence.

“Loki? Can I come in? Please?”

More silence.

“You're… probably not asleep, so… um, tell me if you don't want me to come in. If you don't say anything…”

There was yet more silence, and, reluctantly, Tony opened the door and walked in.

The lights were off, but the mechanical glows outside coloured the room well enough to see, similar to the lounge, and the moon's feathered rays stretched to cover most of the floor. Loki was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding the mug in one hand and a small dagger in the other. He didn't bother looking up.

“You don't trust me,” he said, resting the dagger in his lap.

“I just… wanted to see if you're okay.”

“I'm fine. I told you I'll be fine.”

Tony glanced to the side. A lone, empty bottle made its home atop the table. There wasn't even a glass out. He pretended not to notice and returned his attention to Loki. “That's good.”

“Take a seat. I'll show you how this works.”

Tony lingered in the entrance for another second, then closed the door and walked over. He sat next to Loki and looked at the weapon.

The dagger was approximately six inches from the blade’s tip to the end of a black, wooden handle, thus easily concealable in a sleeve or pocket, and it was polished to a smooth, mirror-like finish. Its edge was paper-thin: sharpening it any further seemed, to Tony, at least, impossible. He had no doubts, though.

Loki took a sip of tea and then placed the mug on the bedpost. “I sharpen all my weapons magically,” he said, looking again at the dagger. “The results are finer and longer-lasting.”

“How much finer than this can you get?”

“You'd be surprised.” Loki lifted the dagger and angled it so the flat was facing him; his reflection twinkled in its depths, almost blindingly. “Most of these can split hairs when I'm done with them.”

And Tony watched, then, as Loki cast that same spell he always did and dragged his fingers from end to end, brushing a mirage-like rain of green sparks into the air, and, apparently satisfied with the result, as he let the magic retreat to his core.

“Do you still have that sword?” Tony asked.

“I do,” Loki said. “It's not my best weapon, but it's all I have at this point that isn't just another knife. I'll keep it for now.”

“Armour?”

“I have a few sets. Light armour, mostly. I still have those plates from Titan, but the rest is leather.”

“What about…”

Loki glanced up. “Five years ago?”

“I keep thinking it's six,” Tony said to himself. “Five, six. Doesn't matter. But yeah, that one. With the horns?”

“Oh, that.” Loki smiled. “It was more of a ceremonial set. I liked it very much—wore it whenever I could—but there was no reason to keep it on hand. So, I left it at the palace. I couldn't have known.”

“I liked it too, though. The horns were cool. A little over-the-top, but cool.”

“I still have these,” Loki said, forming the circlet he'd worn to Ragnarök. He tilted his head back so the golden curves caught the light. “Not quite as impressive, but they do work well in close combat.”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, I can imagine.”

Loki vanished the piece a moment later and returned to the dagger in his hand. He twirled it once, examining its edges, then asked, “Why are you still here?”

“I'm just… worried.”

“About me?” Loki smiled again, this to his reflection. “That much was obvious,” he said. “I appreciate it, I really do, but I hope you know it's unnecessary. I'm not someone to be worried about.”

“It's hard not to,” Tony said, frowning slightly, and he hesitated. “You're—”

“Mentally unstable,” Loki calmly finished, eyes still on the blade. “It sure makes things interesting, doesn't it?”

“I guess, but I was actually gonna say relatable. You're strong. I know you are. I mean—you can deal with this stuff; I don't doubt it. Empathy's a bitch, though.”

“Empathy over what?” Loki set the weapon down. “Torture?”

“No, just—I don't know. Jeez, I'm rambling again,” Tony muttered, pressing a hand to his forehead. “Sorry.”

“Apologies don't suit you,” Loki said.

“They don’t suit you, either.”

No response. Then: “Here.” Loki presented the dagger hilt-first; Tony blinked. “Come on. I know you want to get a better look. I can see it in your eyes.”

Unsure what else to do, and unable to deny Loki’s observation, Tony accepted the weapon. “You don't think I'll stab you?” he said, bringing it close.

“Do you know how?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Could you, though? Stab me? I'm tipsy and fighting tears, Anthony. You're not that kind of person.”

Tony took the full name with a curious twitch of his right brow. “You'd be surprised,” he said, smiling wryly to himself. “But yeah, I guess you're right.” He paused. “You're only tipsy?”

“Unfortunately. Asgardian wine's strong, but it's not that strong. I’m getting there. Maybe I have something else.”

Loki went quiet then, eyes glossing over in thought, and Tony spent a few more seconds with the blade before offering it to him.

“Loki?”

“Wait,” he said. He returned the dagger to his lap and squinted at nothing in particular. “Wait,” he said again. “I'm searching for something. I should have… ah.” A darkened bottle materialized in his hand. He shook it, saw that it wasn't entirely empty, and gave a pained laugh. “Maybe I can forget this night yet.”

Tony didn't respond.

Loki opened the bottle and poured it into what remained of the tea, sounding a single splash as the two liquids met. He winced. “Oh,” he said, vague recognition spreading across his face. “You don't drink anymore, do you?” He steadied the bottle. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“A little,” Tony admitted.

“If the insomnia doesn't keep me up, the nightmares will. This”—Loki swapped the bottle for the mug—“is the least I can do. I'm tired, Anthony.” 'Tired' dragged, carrying more meaning than intended; here, it wasn't merely sleepiness. By Loki's expression, he probably knew this. He smiled and tipped the mug back.

“My friends call me Tony.”

Loki tore the mug away, burst into a long, loud giggle. “Is that what you consider me?” he managed between the laughter, placing—almost toppling—it onto the bedpost, precariously next to the bottle. “A friend.” He breathed another half-formed laugh. “Hell of a friend I am.”

Tony ignored him. “What is that, anyway?”

“This?” Loki asked, raising the bottle. “Asgard's answer to vodka. It makes for good cheap fuel.”

“Jeez, really?”

“Oh, yes. You think I'm exaggerating, but I've used it in emergencies. We could try it someday if you have any vehicles you don't mind risking.”

“Uh… no, thanks.”

“It would work. There's a—ah, shit, there it is,” Loki finished, eyes closed, smiling indistinctly, and he took a slow breath. “There's, um… in the process…” He stopped to look at the label. There was a noticeable slur in his voice when he continued: “In the process,” he said, “there's a certain… very high purity they achieve. Higher than anything on Earth. This is basically pure ethanol, plus some naturally-forming compounds present in many fuels. Really, Anthony! You could start a car with it.”

Tony didn't bother correcting him. “I don't do cheap fuel,” he said, forcing a smile of his own. “I like my collection too much.”

“Of course,” Loki said, and he sent the dagger into storage and conjured another, then repeated the process.

Somewhere between the first spark of green and the last, when Loki was scrutinizing the blade for any defects, testing it on the meat of his thumb, the silence became too much. The change was too sudden; was he better after all, or was he just hiding it now?

What would he be like in the morning?

Hoping to lighten the mood, Tony cleared his throat and said, “This is the part where you flirt.”

There was a long delay before Loki looked away from the dagger and at him, head tipped curiously to one side, and a split second then when the moonlight hit him just so, revealing a warm, mottled blush in his cheeks. “Pardon?”

“Like—okay, that came out wrong. I mean you usually make some weird flirty joke right about now, and I'm hearing nothing. Should I be worried?”

Loki didn't answer immediately: he pressed his lips into a bittersweet smile, glanced out the window, at the door, and then back at Tony. “No,” he said, and in the soft, uncertain whisper of his hopeless inebriation, this 'no' was oddly soothing; it almost fulfilled its intended purpose. But Tony did not accept it, and thus, Loki continued, “Don't worry. Here, if it makes you feel better: I'll confess now that I find you sickeningly attractive in an unconventional way.”

Tony laughed to himself, and he was about to say a thank you, but Loki did not end there: he carried on, perfectly ignoring any protests, and each sentence sparked a new burst of surprised, wholehearted delight.

“Your eyes,” Loki said, “are like a magpie's, and your curls, when they show themselves, are your most charming feature. I love the curve of your brows and the lines you get when you laugh. They're captivating. And that facial hair suits you like nothing else; I can't imagine you otherwise.” He stopped, looked away, still smiling, still blushing that faint, causeless blush, and nodded slowly. “Yes, I think… that should be enough. Is it?”

Emphatically so, Tony wanted to say, but what came out instead, for whatever reason, was a simple repeat: “Yes, that's enough.” His thoughts were flying in too many directions to manage a more authentic response.

“Good,” Loki said, as if he hadn’t just rendered Tony nearly too shocked to answer.

Did this mean anything? Was it merely the unthinking appreciation that could be felt towards any attractive person (and Tony knew, as non-arrogantly as possible, that this was no rarity for him, and of course it could have been; that appreciation was just seeping from Loki, no matter the subject) or was it something more?

Tony hoped that, whatever the case, it would be forgotten come the morning. He didn’t know how to take this.

“You know,” Loki said, “I’d have done this on myself—won't that've made things so much easier?—but it won’t work on the caster, l-l-lod—logistical reasons and all that, so I was going to ask, since you must be tired too: would you let me help you to sleep?”

“Um… I don’t think that's a good idea. You’re a little too…”

“Oh. Oh, I see. Yes, you’re right. Sorry. That’s… risky, yes.”

“Rain check?”

“Sure.”

The silence returned, and Tony watched as Loki drew another dagger, cast the same spell. Though it didn't colour his eyes, not directly, the emerald glitter danced inside them the way an aurora danced in a pitch-black sky; here was their shadowy expanse, illuminated only by the moon and the various tech guarding the compound, and here were the ribbons of light. And there was something else there, laced in his worry lines: hesitation. A lie. An unspoken word, phrase—something.

Dissatisfaction. That was it.

Loki slid the blade's tip across his thumb, healed it, and, although he seemed content with the result, and although he cleaned and sent the weapon to its place with no qualms, the look was there. He was dissatisfied with something—and there were so many things to be dissatisfied with! This night; this incident, this accident with the tea and how, why that had happened, why he hadn't been alone when it did. That outburst that would have been avoided, and the fact that he wasn't as drunk as he wanted to be—oh, he wasn't; Tony knew that expression anywhere. This—

All this. All of it.

Það'r ekki nógu skörp,” Loki muttered as he pulled out a knife, or so he might have; the slur was even worse now. Forget about foreign languages. “Það gæti verið skarpara… ég'r ekki að reyna. Það þarf að vera skarpara. Það þarf að vera skarpara!

The sensation one gets when listening to someone speak to themselves in another language, in a language that cannot be understood in any way except for perhaps some reasonable similarities here, as between 'skörp' and 'sharp,' and some context there, as in sharpening knives, is not pleasant. It is much less pleasant when there is discomfort in the mix, when there is drunken fear and upset and this knowledge that whatever is being said cannot possibly be good—and Tony, as he picked out familiar words and whatever else he could understand, felt every bit of it. It was as alienating as it was worrying.

“What was that?” Tony asked, trying his best not to sound demanding.

Loki looked up suddenly, and his face went even redder than it already was and some long, partially translated swear left him, and he hissed, “I'm doing it again, aren't I? Can't speak right, this is why—you don't go digging around in spells, ad-d-d—adjusting!—fuck—adjusting things like disabling it at will and all that because then it gets too”—he gestured with the knife—“too—Norns, I can't speak—it loosens and then al-right, you can turn it off at will, but then it's too flexible and it does things like this, you know, you get drunk or you're sleeping or whatever and look, you're speaking discount Norse! I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I don't mean to—”

“Hey,” Tony said, “I was just asking. I'm not, like, offended that you're talking in another language around me. You don't need to apologize for everything. And maybe, uh…” He glanced at the knife, which was dangerously close to Loki's face. “Maybe—”

“What?” Loki snapped. “Put this away? Stop d-d—gesticulating? No. It's too dull, anyway. There, that's what I was grumbling about—it needs to be sharper and I can't, I guess—alcohol and lack of sleep, that's it, of course it's not working, but—” He set the knife on the bed, hard, so hard it bounced under his hand. “What else am I supposed to do? What, read? I can't read like this.”

“The offer's still on for a movie,” Tony said.

“Fuck your movie,” Loki retorted, and Tony shrank in his seat, unable to fire back.

There is another sensation, similar to the one when hearing a foreign language, that goes like this: hearing someone speak in a way they typically don't is distressingly uncanny, and when the last time it happened is during something like Titan—

there is jarring reality, a harsh dose of this is danger, this is what can happen—

and then the universe decrees: the fear is reversed, if only for a second.

“Okay,” Tony eventually said, and he folded his hands in his lap, acted as peaceable as he could, which wasn't very peaceable at all, and quietly added, “Have you tried sleeping again? Maybe after the… that, maybe it'll work now.”

“No,” Loki said, “no, it won't work, you know what'll happen? My mind'll start wandering and then it's all—get out. Get out of my room.”

“What?”

“Get out of my room, Tony. Please. I just want to be alone.”

He missed that charming, flattering Loki from so recently ago.

“Okay,” Tony said, standing. “I'm…” Sorry? No; they'd had too many apologies. “I'm gonna go sit in my workshop or… something. Pass out on the floor, maybe.” He looked at the knife on the bed, at Loki. “Stay safe.”

“Thank you,” Loki said. “I'm sorry I snapped at you.” So much for limits. “Goodnight; I hope you can sleep.”

“I'll try. You try, too. Goodnight.”

And with that, after a few more seconds, after a long moment convincing himself to go, Tony left the room. He closed the door and went to retrieve a shirt, shadow-like, unnoticed, and then went to his workshop, as promised.

Neither of them attempted any rest.

Chapter Text

If Loki said his hangover that morning was one of the worst he'd ever experienced in his life, it would be an understatement. Though he did eventually move from one end of the bed to the other, citing an aching back and neck and wanting to tuck his feet under the sheets, stay warm while he kept chipping away at blade after blade after blade, he never quite made himself fully horizontal, and between starvation, dehydration, and a lack of sleep, it was a miracle he retained consciousness. Norns knew, he didn't want to; he would have killed for a night of true black-out intoxication, a night of honest, heavy rest—no dreams, no nightmares, no worries.

But there was nothing.

Sometime shortly after dawn, for reasons unknown, he refrained from summoning another knife to replace the one he put away, magicked his chest clean, took a deep breath, and slowly, carefully dragged himself off the bed. The very instant he let go of the mattress and tried to stand on his own, he almost collapsed, and he sat there on the edge, breathed in hard again, breathed out, waited for the nausea and dizziness to settle.

He wasn't hungry. He should have had a glass of water to drink, or two, or three, or twenty, but he wasn't thirsty, either.

He wanted to sleep. That wouldn't happen, though; he knew it wouldn't.

Last night's memories had not gone.

Wearily, Loki pulled his hair into a low, messy ponytail, fixed his clothes, and got up. There was no reason to leave the room, same as there had been no reason to leave his roost, and oh, how he didn't want to; how he wanted to find himself a hole and just burn, forget everything that ever was and would be, hide from all the agonies. How he wanted to—how he should have.

He couldn't face Tony again, he was too scared to face anyone else, and as he disposed of the evidence and snatched the mug from his nightstand, as he stood there, questioning, clutching it with both hands, it nagged him.

He left anyway.

Though he couldn't stomach food or water, coffee felt neutral, and since he had never bothered getting a machine in his room, or a kettle, for that matter, what that meant for him was going anywhere but here—and even though he knew it was stupid and that nothing would happen and that whatever happened was caused by his own detrimentally excessive caution, he couldn't further stress to himself how much he didn't want to venture beyond his bedroom. He clearly wasn't planning on sleep, though, knew it wouldn't come if he tried, and maybe, hopefully, caffeine would be of some use. It was, at the end of the day, hydration; that still counted for something.

Other than Sam, who was virtually undetectable in a corner, and Tony and Pepper, who were both similarly wrapped up in their own matters, there was no one in the lounge. Loki almost wasn't sure if they noticed him slip into the room. Then Tony glanced at him, gave a hazy, acknowledging smile, and returned to chatting before the gesture could be matched—noticing, but nothing else. Well, all the simpler.

There was nearly a full pot of coffee made when Loki ducked into the kitchen, and his relief at this felt almost physical. He cleaned the mug, set it down in front of the machine, and then… hesitated. As always, as every other time he had to deal with a liquid, he hesitated.

If it weren't for the pounding sickness in his head and that vague fear of any and all consequences, he really would have screamed—but instead, all he did was close his eyes and count to five, back and forth, until his mind felt a little clearer and his hand was a little steadier. He lifted the pot and slowly, gently angled it into the mug, eyeing the stream with a deathly focus, making sure there was no sound.

For a second, Loki had the faintest suspicion that Tony was watching him, probably thinking how strange of a coincidence the noiseless pour was, but when he straightened the pot and looked over his shoulder, there was nothing to suggest any observation. Maybe it was paranoia again; maybe Tony had just been swift enough that he wasn't seen.

Loki tried not to think about it.

He slid the pot into its dock and dared a small sip of coffee. It was lukewarm.

He kept drinking.

Somewhere between the last few centimetres, Tony stood and joined him. “No sugar?” he asked.

“No sugar,” Loki said, not looking away from the mug. “I'm too tired to care.”

“Couldn't sleep?”

Loki flicked his hazy, dark-circled eyes at him.

“For what it's worth,” Tony said, “I didn't sleep either.”

“You're taking it far better than I am,” Loki said, and then he looked to the mug once more, unable to hold the eye contact any longer. He tipped it back and finished its contents in one breath, then placed it on the counter—too hard; he winced at the sound.

“How many knives did you sharpen?” Tony asked.

Loki paused, half-aware of the question as he thought of his answer. He had no idea. “I lost count,” he said, truthfully. “A hundred, maybe. I'm not sure.”

“Didn't work, huh?”

Loki shook his head.

He poured himself another precise, inaudible measure of coffee and drank it just as hastily. Beside them, Pepper said something about some short-notice meeting somewhere, sorry, and then scuttled off; Tony waved her goodbye.

“I never did forget,” Loki said, mug in hand, wondering if he ought to have a third serving. He lowered the mug and tentatively filled it about a quarter of the way. “That”—drinking himself to oblivion, erasing everything—snap!—“didn't work either.”

“Oh. I'm… sorry to hear that.”

Abruptly, Loki felt his heart quickening, dread twisting his gut, and he decided he'd had enough caffeine for the moment. He downed the inch of coffee and then cleaned the mug, no water, and pushed it aside.

“Nice nails,” Tony said.

“What?”

“The green. It's nice.”

“Oh.” Mostly reflexively, Loki examined his one hand; there were large chips bordering the polish—how long had it been?—but it was still holding. “Thank you.”

“What are you doing today?” Tony asked.

“Trying not to have a mental breakdown,” Loki calmly responded. “You?”

“Hopefully not the same. Do you want to talk?”

“No.”

“Okay. I'm always here if you need me.”

“I know. I don't.”

Tony nodded. “I have a thing with some friends,” he said, leaning on the counter. “Everyone was super busy after all that chaos and it's been a while, so…” He shrugged. “Phones only cut it for so long, y'know?”

“Mhm.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“Would you be offended if I said yes?”

“Not really.” Tony stepped away from the counter. “Stay hydrated. I'll see you later.”

Loki said nothing to that, and he said nothing as Tony walked out of the room. Did nothing. He waited there, mind blank, picking at his wrists and glancing at Sam every few seconds, at the doors, windows, watching for any

movement, danger, a reason to run—

and, seeing no such thing, and after another minute or so to cover his bases, make sure he wouldn't bump into anyone along the way, he turned and crept downstairs. It was all he could do.

The library was empty, which was its typical blessing. Loki closed the door behind him—too hard, again, and he flinched—and explored the aisles, one by one, looking at every spine he passed. There were thousands of books here; he would find something. If it was well-illustrated enough, the words might even break through.

Between the search, between all the calm of a silent, book-filled room, his mind was screaming at him to go, hide—gods, it was even worse now—go back and stay there, stay, don't make this same mistake; don't bet on safety. He should have. These risks he kept taking were too big, too unpredictable, too much. He wouldn't last like this—so it was with such wild, reckless stupidity that he told himself, no, not today, please, it's just a room, they're just people, they will not hurt me—

and choked down that fresh panic, grabbed a thick guide on some obscure pseudoscience that he couldn't care less about, and sat by the window, in the library's lone, plush armchair. He brought his knees up, bunched himself into one of its corners, and, sleepily, distractedly, he skimmed.

He did so for hours.

Occasionally, when the boredom spiked and that latent fear in his chest became too much, Loki stood and wandered. He fought for entertainment in the smallest ways: deducing, for example, that of the seventeen outlets in the room, only fifteen worked, for the energy felt different when he used his magic to test them; finding every crack and hole in the walls, and finding where screws were loose and paint was beginning to chip. At one point, he opened the window and accidentally knocked part of the screen from its frame, and he then spent multiple minutes working it back into its fasteners. Afterwards, he stood there for longer than he could count, staring out at all the grass and weeds visible at ground level, breathing in the cold air. Once, when he smelled something burning again, he pressed his face to the mesh and kept taking slow, relaxed breaths, and, eventually, the scent of a metal screen crossed with a clean, fresh breeze was all he could detect.

No one came in. The door stayed closed, and the rare footsteps he heard outside the library were distant enough that he startled only slightly.

Somewhere between the late afternoon and early evening, when it was just beginning to darken outside and he became too restless for comfort, Loki returned the book, eased the window shut, and quietly, cautiously walked out, stepping as he always did: on the tips of his toes, ready in half a second for a fight.

He never knew.

From there, he was only killing time. He went to his room and tidied everything. He checked the wards, and, although they were self-sustaining and required little to no maintenance—although it had barely been a week, regardless—he took a moment to renew them. He checked his weapons, and his spells—whether he could shift as easily as he remembered into his armour, for one, and whether he could still teleport. (He could; he was just so tired these days that he never quite trusted such things to work as expected, and constant reassurance was always on his mind.)

Rinse and repeat, and then he did nothing until dinner.

He wasn't hungry. He never was. Still—

and he waited first, consciously dipping into and indulging that fear, doing nothing for another thirty or so minutes after he knew the food was done because he was just so nervous—

still, he tiptoed down.

No one; only Tony fixing some kitchen infrastructure, and Pepper getting up to leave. Loki shared an acknowledging glance with her as she slipped past him, but nothing else.

She knew something.

Loki breathed in, tried to clear the feeling. One, two, three, four, five.

He went to get a plate.

There was that look on Tony's face as they awkwardly skirted each other, as Loki scooped out a too-small clump of meat and veggies: are you eating enough?

From Loki: yes, I am. How do you know I'm not just eating in private? How often do you eat here? I am eating exactly as much as I need to, and if I’m not, I don’t need your concern; leave me alone.

Not a word of this was spoken aloud, and yet, they understood.

Loki sat in his usual spot on the couch and ate in silence: uneasy, unhungry bites.

Minutes passed; Tony kept fiddling with the drawer, and Loki kept eating, mostly against his will.

Tap. Tap tap tap.

Loki planted his foot a little firmer on the floor and breathed in. Breathed out.

He finished his food, cleaned the fork and plate as he was, there on the couch, and returned them to their respective places. Then he sat once more.

Tap tap tap: now, his hands, one finger drumming over his knuckles.

He couldn't take this.

“You told her, didn't you?”

Tony closed the drawer and turned. “Told who?” he asked, brows furrowing. “What?”

“Pepper,” Loki said; the tapping became quick, partially-hidden scratches, on and on and on, flushing the skin with unbroken blood. “She's been looking at me all day like I'm some wounded animal. Something's changed.”

“She doesn’t know about last night,” Tony said, “if that's what you're asking.”

Years upon years of trained instincts rose to match him.

That knowing. That wrongness. The words were so fluid, the body language so natural, but there were such small, unconscious subtleties, tells that could never be completely curbed—tells that only a god of these things could detect. The accusation was out before Loki could stop it: “You're lying.”

And at that, Tony froze—only for a second, only slightly, but he froze. Then he shook his head and countered, “No, I'm not. You're easy to read—sorry, but these days, you are. She probably just picked up on that.”

Loki stood. “You’re still lying,” he said; his knuckles were going raw. “You’re not very good at this.”

“I didn't tell her anything,” Tony said, the words hard. “You were there this morning! We just ran into each other at some point and that's all she knows, and that’d be from eavesdropping on us. She doesn't know about—”

“That,” Loki finished, and a dry, abrupt snicker left him—humour to hide how much he was panicking, how angry he was. It was all he could ever do. “Surprise,” he said, walking up to Tony, slowly, casually: “she's easy to read too. She's never looked at me like that before, not with any of the other things I know she knows. The flashbacks. The nightmares. She knows about those, doesn’t she? I’m okay with that. Everyone knows; there’s nothing I can do. But… this is new. You said no one would find out. What happened to that?”

Silence.

Loki waited.

“I'm sorry,” Tony softly said. “It slipped out. I just—” He blinked, eyes suddenly wide, and breathed in. “Could you get back a little? You're way too close.”

Loki didn't move. “I trusted you,” he said, and he switched hands, kept clawing the skin at waist-level. “I trusted you! Even though every fibre of my being was telling me not to”—even though his instincts were burning, even now—“I trusted you. Why?”

He expected no answer, and that was what he received: awkward glances left and right, a sentence abandoned within a few words, but no answer. There was never an answer to these questions.

“How foolish of me,” Loki muttered to himself. “Always so foolish. If I'd known you'd go telling everyone”—he looked up, a harsh, deliberate gleam in his otherwise even expression—“I would have wiped your memories. Too late for that, isn’t it?”

“I'm sorry,” Tony said, just as low as the first time, and he stepped back; his arms pressed against the kitchen island. “I screwed up, alright? I'm sorry. She doesn't even—she doesn't see you any differently. It's all the same.”

“Is it?” Loki hissed. “You have no idea what it's like.”

“What what's like? What? Reputation? You think if you break down somewhere people are going to think less of you?”

“Why did you tell her?” he yelled; he couldn’t help it.

“God, she was—” Tony broke off and took another deep breath. “She knew something was wrong,” he said, “and I just can't lie around her. She asked. I answered. I'm sorry.

That fear again, that hopelessness—and where these emotions were usually masked by an overly calm expression, by pleasant speech and a relaxed posture, there was something rarer and so much more dangerous to replace them: anger. Such

anger—

burning alongside those screaming instincts and calls to run, run far and fast, run now—

and Loki snarled and gripped him by the shirt. “You could have said so!”

“Let me go,” Tony quietly said—quiet, but firm; a careful, well-practised bid for peace. “Let me go, Loki.” He squared his shoulders and forced himself to maintain the eye contact. “You're right: I should have said so. I didn't think she'd ask. I didn't think it was necessary, and that was stupid of me. I know. I'm sorry. Let me go.”

He was about to. But then something snapped—

and there was

that old rage, lingering there between everything else:

blind thoughts, blind actions—

and he pulled Tony away from the island and thrust him against the fridge, pinned his chest with both hands, and said, “I knew it; I knew I should have left. I should have left the day I got here, but then, I figured I'd stick around for a bit because you all weren't attacking me, right? Free roof over my head, free food—oh, I needed it. Thanks. Thank you so much for that.” An honest, split-second smile flashed across his lips, gone that very next instant when he continued, “But then this started happening, all these—what is this? These incidents? Where—” There is this fear, this crack in the walls—

Tony squirmed under his grip—

“And you do this! You barge in and you watch all this unfold and you give me this pity—look at me, you think I can't see that?” Loki glared. “I didn't ask for this,” he hissed. “I didn't ask for your pity, and I certainly didn't ask for anyone else's.”

“It's not pity,” Tony said; his voice was shrill, close to tears. He straightened himself and then stopped, flinched, as Loki bore down even harder on his ribs. “I'm not going anywhere,” he added through grit teeth, stifling a whimper, some tiny whine of discomfort. “I told you, I'm sorry.”

“What is it, then? What, if not pity?”

“I don't know.” Tony inhaled sharply and looked up. “I don't know what it is, but it's not pity.”

(that's a lie too that's—)

Loki withdrew his right hand, and there was that rush of burning fear, fury—

where he didn't know what he was doing

where ancient habit took over—

and then he was suddenly on Tony's neck, thumb curled around his jugular, gently tracing the soft skin, half-day stubble, never once straying past the mere ghost of a touch.

Pure silence. Tony didn't move an inch. His breathing slowed to a crawl; his heart, as Loki could feel, didn't. He simply waited, gaze steady, for something to happen. Nothing did.

“You're lying,” Loki said.

Tony swallowed, uncomfortably aware of the palm against his Adam's apple. “I call it pity sometimes,” he admitted, still staring into Loki's eyes. From that distance, they were more of a pale blue-green, not ice-blue as he'd rather dumbly believed, nor plain, ashen lime, as they appeared in good lighting—nor the exaggerated emerald they gained during certain spells; pale blue-green, he decided, was the basic, unaltered colour. Like an ocean as it breached the shore. “I call it that because it's easier,” he said. “It's close, but it's not. It's… semantics. I don't know. Pity just sounds condescending. That's not what this is. I think it's awful that all this happened to you, but I don't pity you. You're too strong for pity.” He gulped again. “Kinship. That's what it is. We both went through bad things and I empathized. You know that part. It made me feel this obligation towards you. Nothing more than that.”

Loki considered his answer. After a moment, he removed his hands and stepped back.

There was nothing.

There was no shattered silence, no sudden screaming or running, nothing from either of them; it was like the universe itself had stopped. They just watched each other, equally silent, equally unmoving, and for the longest time, that was all there was. Then Tony sank to the floor, arms spread across the top of his knees, and closed his eyes—and that was when all of that professionally hidden terror finally hit him.

“Okay,” he whispered to himself, breaths shallow, a tremble to his voice, “okay, that was—holy shit.” He leaned back against the fridge and began counting on his fingers, over and over, one, two, three, four, but the longer inhales sounded just as laboured. Still, he kept counting, and between the numbers, he glanced up and asked, “Were you serious?” Pause: one, two, three, four. “You weren't going to—no. No way.” Two cycles. “Tell me you were bluffing. Tell me—” Three; he pressed his hands to his cheeks and then forced a proper look at Loki. “You were bluffing, right?”

Loki had no answer.

For all the silver of his tongue, there wasn't a single word that would come to him—because he hadn't been. He had meant every godforsaken second, and he hated himself for it.

He felt like a hypocrite; an insensitive bastard, someone who had learned nothing from his own reactions to being pushed too far. A monster.

The kind parents told their children about.

“I was,” he finally managed. The lie ached him, like something sharp had lodged itself in his chest. He had never been so aware of a false sentence in his life. “I'm sorry.” That was true. “I'm so sorry. I was frustrated”—and scared, and angry, and all those other evils that always escalated into something worse; that panic, digging even now into his heart—“and I didn't know what else to do. That was…”

“Uncalled for?” Tony yelled. “Yeah, it was. That was”—his voice cracked—“too much. Did you know I'm still scared of you? And I've been trying so hard not to be because I really thought you were safe now, that—that there was no threat, but I guess I was wrong. I was wrong, wasn't I?”

And he was.

Loki knew he wouldn't have killed him, no, never that, but he would have undoubtedly rendered him unconscious. Maybe it would have been accidental. Maybe only for a few seconds.

It didn't matter; he'd considered it, and that was a crime all on its own.

“I'm sorry,” he said again, and he realized then how heavily they were mirroring each other. The excessive apologies, the overstepping. It was almost poetic. “I get so angry sometimes. I don't think. I do these… stupid things.”

Tony shifted, such that his legs were half-crossed and his arms were tucked against his chest, and took another slow, deep breath. “That's what you call this?” he asked, gazing up at him; tears lined his eyes. “Talk about an understatement.”

Monster, said that same voice. Here was genuine trust, genuine forgiveness and second chances, an opportunity to forget and move on, and what, Loki wondered, had he done with all of it? Nothing.

What was wrong with him?

The fog pitched with no warning and no mercy. “I should leave,” he said, the words distant, barely audible in his mind. “I don't want this to happen again.”

In spite of everything, a fleeting shine of guilt appeared in Tony's eyes, and even as the unshed tears continued to build, even with an unyielding shiver and a slight stammer, he protested: “No,” he said. “You can't. Where are you gonna go?”

“Somewhere. Anywhere.” Loki shook his head. “I'm tired,” he muttered. “I always do this.”

Tony sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “I'll clear the footage.”

“What will that do?” Loki asked, expressionless. “This still happened. We'll still know. Don't kid yourself.”

Tony said nothing to that. He breathed in once, and, between another tremor, told him, “Stay the night. Leave in the morning if you want. I don't care. Just… rest up, will you? Please.”

He didn't deserve this. Norns, he didn't. What was wrong with them both?

Loki couldn't muster the strength for a raised brow. If he could, it would have been to his hairline. He turned, slowly, reluctantly, and walked out, eyes on the floor, toes as precise as always. No glances over his shoulder; he couldn't bear them. Just that eternally nervous tiptoe.

Not knowing what else to do, Tony stayed there on the floor.

The fingers around his neck seemed to linger: soft, deceivingly careful—cold; they weren't quite like ice, but they must have been at least several degrees below the normal temperature, as if, on an early winter night, they'd been darted in and out of the doorway and absorbed just that second's worth of the chill. It haunted him.

He laid a hand where Loki's had been, half-conscious of his racing pulse against it, and let the tears fall.

He tried not to think about 2012.

Gradually, Tony steadied his breathing. He didn't get up.

Chapter Text

It still felt like a dream; that anger, fear, actions before thought were all old noise in Loki's mind, burning static, words that didn't mean anything—

words

          falling

                    falling

through the crevices of consciousness, sinking like water in his senses, clawing him apart—

and those floodgates in his soul opened wide to them and everything else came tumbling, here:

he was suddenly

drowning, dreading, dying—

telling himself how worthless he was, how horrid, how a monster like him deserved to burn, how he needed to

(one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five one two three four five)

stop

and end it all

how he needed to—

Here: hands gripping the pillowcase, chest heaving with those awful, ugly kind of sobs, that same voice (monster, look what you did, look what you fucking did), this agony, the feeling of coming undone from the inside out—the smell of cotton, tears in his eyes, bleeding wrists—how real, how real, yet he was still falling, still sinking—

couldn't breathe, expected to wake up and wouldn't, couldn't understand why this happened, what he did, why he was like this—why why why why why—

and it stayed like that for hours, although he would never know exactly how many; all he knew was that by the time his thoughts were coherent enough, by the time he stopped crying so hard he was choking, his entire body ached, the pillow was cold and damp, and one of his arms was numb.

 

He struggled onto his side, then his back, and stared at the ceiling.

 

It was well into the night by now, with the hazy, ever-present lights in the distance casting a moon-like glow over the room. There wasn't a single sound to be heard.

He sat up.

He shook his arm until the blood returned, endured the prickles with a lengthy wince, and crawled out of bed.

His hands burned, and he walked—drifted, unable to feel himself moving for how absent his mind was—to the window and, shakily, he raised them towards the light. From the tips of his fingers to where his wrists ended, the outside skin had been scraped away until it was raw, flaking in long, pockmarked lines that perfectly matched his nails. He frowned as he took the details in, but didn't otherwise react; he didn't expect much else after what had happened.

Tony.

Look at you.

Loki stepped back from the window and sat against the foot of the bed.

Look what you did.

He breathed in, one, two, three, four, five, and breathed out, one, two, three, four, five, again and again, until the numbers were automatic.

He felt a yearning for temporary nonexistence, and he wondered why he hadn't kept more drinks in his holding space—wondered if it were feasible to look for some on Earth. Wondered if he would try; was it even worth the effort?

Maybe.

He looked out at the compound perimeter, wandering between plains, trees, and far-off skyscrapers. Nausea droned in his head, like he hadn't really slept—and he knew he hadn't; rather, he'd simply zoned out long enough to feel like he had. If that was the case, then he was running on—

He counted, realized he didn't know what time it was, nor what date it was, and then settled on at least seventy-two hours of no sleep, emphasis on the at least. Three days. That was nothing. After all, didn't Tony regularly exceed that number?

you fucked up you fucked up you fuCKED UP—

Loki staggered to his feet and repositioned himself at the table. He glanced at the ceiling.

Cameras, microphones, speakers.

Unable to trust his spells, not now, not for a long time, he spoke the words aloud; then, he waved his hand and cleared one of the room's original wards. He waited, heart pounding, thinking of questions and answers, thinking what he would say.

Seconds passed.

“FRIDAY?” he asked; his voice came quieter than planned. “Where's Tony?”

There was silence for a moment, and Loki felt the briefest surge of panic over whether he'd miscast the spell or otherwise permanently affected her systems. Then, as faithful as the wind, she calmly replied, “He's in his room.”

Loki rested his arms on the table. “Sleeping?”

“Trying to.”

( look what you fucking did, you warmonger bitch! )

“What's wrong with me?” he muttered.

Had it been Tony she was talking to, FRIDAY's response might have been crass, even mocking, but this wasn't him, and she wasn't that obtuse; “You're going through a lot,” she began. “It's not uncommon to act out when something's bothering you.”

“No,” Loki said. “I've always been like this. Even before all that. I'm rough. I upset easily. My first reaction when someone crosses me is to fight them. I don't mean to. I didn't want this to happen. I know what I mean to him and I still had to—I had to just go and do that!” He leaned into his arms. “I don't deserve this. I don't deserve any of this. They trusted me and I just turned around and—gods, he'll probably kick me out, won't he? I'm too much of a risk to keep around. And he didn't say he would, you know; he acted like it was my choice if I wanted to leave or not, but it can't be. It can't be.” Then, quieter, “He should have left me on Titan. I should have rotted there like the beast I am.”

“Do you want me to call him?” FRIDAY said.

“For what?” Loki snapped, lifting his head. “So I can try to strangle him again? What do you think he'll do, help me? He can't help me.”

“Alright.”

Loki stood and began to pace. “I don’t understand,” he said, slumping onto the couch with a grunt. “I was so good at hiding these things. No one knew. No one ever knew. Whatever happened, I always looked fine, even when I was alone. What changed? What makes this any different?”

“We have a saying here,” FRIDAY said after a short pause, “about the straw that broke the camel’s back. Have you heard of it?”

“I have,” Loki said, casting another disinterested upwards glance. “Is that what you think this is?”

“It could be.”

Loki crossed his arms; his fingers rubbed uncomfortably against his shirt and he flinched. “I can’t be like this,” he said, biting back another wave of tears. “It’s humiliating. What kind of a god am I?”

“A powerful one,” FRIDAY said. “Tony would tell you this. You're not any less of a god for experiencing emotions.”

“That's only what I want to hear. It's not true. You know it's not.”

“It is, but I can't convince you otherwise, can I?”

Not in a million years, and knowing it would do nothing, Loki didn't even spare the effort to say this. He heaved himself off the couch and continued pacing, returned to the window and inspected his hands again, slowly tracing the marks with one finger like they were a bruise waiting to be reaffirmed: yes, they were still there, and yes, they still hurt. He remembered fidgeting, but he didn't remember when he'd lost control. He wondered if he'd done anything else.

“Why am I talking to you?” he asked. “You're just an AI.”

FRIDAY hesitated, like his comment had offended her. Then she sighed—actually sighed; Loki raised an eyebrow—and said, “It helps to get it out. Even if I am just an AI.”

“You’re probably recording this,” Loki said, draping his hands behind him. He frowned and looked up. “You are, aren’t you?”

“I am,” FRIDAY admitted. “That's how I work. I'll delete it.”

“You better.” Loki brought his hands back in front of him and started scratching at the marks; they weren't even dry yet. “I'll know,” he said. “Don't you tell him. Don't you dare.”

“I won't.”

The pain turned to a numb heat. Loki didn't stop.

He turned and resumed his anxious circling, breaths heavy and irregular. He was

slipping—

          sinking, dragged into the water, burning—

 

                       in blood and sweat, cold chains, a cold room—

 

 

                                     (like

 

 

 

                                          how he deserved—)

 

 

“I shouldn't have bothered,” Loki said, sitting at the table. One, two, three, four, five. “Every time. Every fucking time.” His fingers trailed to the back of his neck, where he continued clawing at the skin. “Horfðu á þig,” he hissed, “þú helvíti hálfviti.” A sudden sob wracked him and he pressed harder, pressed until he felt fresh blood slicking his nails. “Þvílík svívirðing sem þú ert. Þvílík bilun.

The rest was incoherently mumbled into his arms (and even he couldn't tell what he was saying, for he was too out of it to notice), but FRIDAY heard enough. Self-aimed insults, a quick cross-reference and translation told her: idiot, disgrace, failure. Of course; given the situation, she wasn't particularly surprised.

Seconds became minutes, and the words became more specific, more familiar, more painful.

Monster; always. Murderer. Disappointment.

Inferior. Weak.

Liar.

He should have burned on the ship. Better: he should have died as a babe, lost, left alone in the crumbling remains of a once magnificent temple.

He never should have made it this far.

Fyrirgefðu,” Loki said, rubbing the blood away with a wince. “I'm—” Sorry. I'm sorry. “I shouldn't have—” He sniffed and raised his other hand. “I just wanted to know if he's alright. I didn't mean to spill my guts like this.”

FRIDAY didn't respond: she faded quietly, without complaint or conflict, as Loki recast the shielding spell around the room.

His hand remained up for some time before he lowered it. In the hazy, blueish light, the blood seemed less like blood and more like any nameless, shiny substance; if he tried, he could almost forget what it was. He took another shaky breath and tilted his hand, and the blood trickled between his fingers, along the grooves of his knuckles and veins, down to his wrist bones.

He tried to wake up.

Nothing happened.

He stood and settled on the couch, where he sat for a moment before heaving the rest of him up, into a lying position; his neck lit up with a stinging pain and he turned, back towards the room, released a low, half-stifled whine as it died. He pulled one of the throw pillows from under the blanket and held it against his chest, clutching it so tightly his fingertips began to ache. He didn't care. He was probably staining it. He didn't care about that either.

The crying returned. He let it come.

He wept there, alone, until he fell asleep… and, though the fear followed him, this was with rare, merciful ease.

 

 

 

Hours later, after a dreamless, restless slumber—a blink, a sudden sling from one time to another—there were healing wounds, a mild headache, and a pale, partially-dawned morning sky.

The fog was worse than it ever had been, and Loki wondered if he was still sleeping—yet he remained there on the couch, face pressed into the cushions, unable to wake any further. Thus: the pain was real; the regret was real; the screams in his mind, he was fairly certain, were a figment of his tired, terrified soul, but they felt just the same.

Reluctantly, he rolled onto his back, sucking in a breath as his neck caught on the fabric, and then sat up.

The marks on his hands had faded to a shiny, half-scabbed red. They stung when he moved and felt hot to the touch, hot even when he drew back, and he realized that he hadn't cleaned them, and, subsequently, he hoped they weren't infected; that was the last thing he needed. His neck—

He could have looked in a mirror. He didn't want to.

Stay.

His stomach gave a low, pathetic growl. He ignored it.

Stay here.

He was too scared/ashamed/upset to do anything else.

Good dog.

He winced.

He filled both hands with magic and began to heal them. There was no pain, no buzz; just a gracious chill across his skin as the heat faded. It wasn't the quickest mend, taking nearly a minute to complete, but it worked. When the scrapes were gone, he killed the spell, stuck his hands in his pockets

(in a coat that Tony had gotten for him)

—out of sight, out of mind, and did nothing. The couch was good (gods, that word again) for that.

He did nothing for another hour before he heard a knock on the door.

Tony's voice was soft, and so, so tired. “If you're still here… um… I just want you to know it's okay. I forgive you.”

One second turned into two, and then five, and then ten. The words wouldn't form.

“If you want to maybe… come down for breakfast or something…” Pause: Tony pacing by the door, an apology to no one under his breath. “Please don't feel like you can't.”

“I'm not hungry,” Loki said.

“Okay,” Tony said, and though he might have insisted some other day, though Loki could hear that familial concern in his tone, there were no attempts: he simply turned and left.

Loki sank a little deeper into the blanket and kept doing nothing.

He thought about trying something else; he thought about reading or maybe continuing to pick at his weapons, one by one, just killing time until the evening so he didn't feel entirely useless. He could have gone down after all, forced a bite he neither wanted nor deserved. He could have.

But he didn't.

His mind was burning, screaming for something, anything, but he didn't have the strength—and it all seemed pointless, anyway; none of it excited him. Whatever he had spent his life doing, whatever others did to fill the day, none of it fit. He was so bored it hurt, but there: he had no ideas, no strength

(well, he didn't really deserve entertainment in the first place)

and it was killing him.

He was wasting his time, dawn to dusk, and it was killing him, and he hated himself for it.

He hated that he didn't care.

He wanted to sit there until dark and cry—and after some seconds, after the weight of it hit him, he did: he started sobbing, just like that, just like he always did, deep, trembling sobs that made his chest and eyes ache, that curled him fetal under the blanket. How miserable, how fucking worthless he was—

and from there, two heartbeats and he was suddenly drowning again, wrapped in those cold chains, bruising, cutting him apart,

listening to them yell, “You want this, you want this; don't fight your destiny, your glorious purpose—”

stop it

The cuffs were digging into his wrists and there was this pressure in his throat, the feeling of a scream that wouldn't come out, and a burning, stinging itch beneath his skin—

stop it stop it stop it stoP IT STOP IT ST—

He'd been good. He'd obeyed. He hadn't done one thing wrong, one thing to anger them. Why were they

carving up his back, kicking him to the floor—

The fall tore old and new scabs into bloody shreds, and he wailed a long, wretched cry of pain, unable to find that proud willpower that always muted him. He stayed there, pushing their words to the edge of his subconscious, where he couldn't hear them, praying he could heal his wounds and that they wouldn't notice, hoping the respite would last—then he was up again, pinned by arms stronger than his, crueller than his.

“Do you understand?” they asked. “Do you see now?”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, please, let me go, you've done enough, I see now—”

but the lie was cheap, easy to discern, and they chained him once more in wait for that precious day when the words rang true, drove a knife into his arm, filled his soul with that same noise: this is your purpose, see how you'll be better, see what you can do—

and between that, written in the margins: he wants you, godling; he'll never leave you; join us or you'll burn—

though Loki would never know until it was too late, until his very existence was woven into a spider's web of grief.

He breathed in, breathed out, felt the silken fur shrouding him and told himself they were just memories, that they weren't real and couldn't do harm, but nothing changed: he felt that same fear he'd felt then, that disgust, that bounding shame and loathing that this had ever occurred, that raging

storm

in his mind—

Breathe in. Breathe out.

why did this happen

One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.

why did this HAPPEN

It wasn't

helping—

“Loki!”

That came realer than anything else, same voice, same ire, and he startled, yelped, “What?” only to hear…

Nothing.

He imagined it.

The thoughts didn't return, but the panic held. He was losing it. He was losing his goddamn mind, still crying—and the tears became the scared, hopeless kind then; things were getting worse, he was getting worse, he knew he was getting worse, and he was scared.

He was so scared.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked, aloud, like a fool, his words drenched in terror and barely a whisper—to whom, he didn't know. The Norns. The universe. Someone.

He didn't know who he was saying them to, or why, and it didn't matter. Fear bred a special sort of desperation.

“Stop,” he whimpered, knees muffling the sound. “Please. Let me rest.”

That. That, between the long, heavy breaths and the fur caressing his skin, was what helped, what did away with the last of it. Or it was close, anyway; he still felt that agonizing hopelessness, still felt like so much like he was dreaming that, when he looked up for a split second, he couldn't recognize the room, and the tears were still rolling down his cheeks; he still felt ashamed of himself for letting this happen. There were no ghosts, though. He couldn't feel the binding cuffs. He couldn't feel them gouging, burning his skin. He couldn't hear them.

The shame didn't leave him. The anger—

he clenched a fist and a wave of feathery green magic rippled out from his body, into the room, into nothing—

—didn't leave him. He wanted to burn, burn for real, set everything and himself on fire, like what should have happened on the Statesman, what would have happened if he wasn't such a coward; that weak little godling who couldn't even kill himself.

He stood, sliding the blanket onto the couch cushions with a rustling thud, and hauled himself to the bathroom.

He couldn't recognize his reflection, either. This was him, and it looked like him and he knew it was him, but it felt strange. It felt like someone else.

He touched the glass, his copy's fingertips. A question rose in his mind, though it remained unspoken, sanely quiet: “What's wrong with you?”

He expected, in this thousand-ton cloud of unreality, to hear an answer to his thought, but there was nothing. It comforted him, at least, to know that he wasn't completely mad.

Tony was lying. It wasn't okay. None of it was okay.

Loki finger-picked the knots out of his hair, slowly, shakily, dreamily, and cleaned his hands of whatever residue the healing spell hadn't affected, and, resigning himself to the pink-cheeked, watery-eyed look of someone who had recently cried, he padded in his socks to the lounge.

This was a bad idea, he thought as he drifted through the hallway; this was a mistake, he shouldn't be here, Tony was a fucking liar—

but there was no judgment when he came in, cat-like, no ambushes and no screaming, and Tony simply looked up from his seat at one of the tables, fork halfway to his mouth, and gave him a sombre, reluctant smile. “Hi, Lokes.”

He felt too big, he wanted to hide, he wanted to run—

“Hi.”

—and Natasha was in the other corner and Pepper was right by Tony and he was so sure that they either knew or they'd find out, and his stomach turned just thinking about it—

“I made gluten-free waffles,” Tony said, that same bittersweet smile on his face (how could anyone hurt such a gentle soul?), and then, with a look like he wanted to wink jokingly but couldn't bring himself to, he added, “They don't taste gluten-free. I promise.”

“Oh,” Loki said. “That's… impressive.”

“I've had practice.”

This entire conversation felt like standing on the edge of a cliff.

He wasn't even hungry; what was he doing here? He wasn't one bit hungry. He didn't have an appetite, and if he did, he would have ignored it. It seemed rude to decline Tony, though, so after what felt like so dreadfully long, Loki dragged himself away from the doorway and into the kitchen. He found a fork and plate, took a single lukewarm waffle, poured a small, respectable amount of syrup into the grooves, and then paused, lost in thought.

His instincts told him to sit at the couch, or if not the couch, at one of the empty tables; distance from the danger. What was the danger? He didn't know. Everything and nothing. It didn't matter.

His mind told him to act like nothing had happened, move on, and sit by Tony and Pepper, with whom he would discuss the weather or something similarly inane, or perhaps by Natasha, with whom he might attempt the same. Ignorance was bliss. He'd already apologized, and Tony had somehow forgiven him (or he was, once again, lying), so that would be the best option—except that his heart was telling him run, damn it all, stop putting it off and just let it all burn and run.

He was supposed to be gone the day after Titan.

“Loki?”

oh holy fucking hell—

He glanced at Tony.

“Come here. I want to tell you something.”

shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit—

Loki got his things and walked over. “Yes?” he asked, setting them on the table.

“New Asgard's going to be legal soon,” Tony said. “There's just a few more papers left to sign and then… well, it's not a country or anything—it's actually a really small logistical detail—but it'll help with a ton of stuff down the line.”

“Oh. That's good. That's wonderful news.”

Tony nodded. “It all looks great. Most of that space was just hills and plains—some buildings here and there, a dock, but it was mostly wilderness—and you can barely tell anymore. There's a team out there helping with all the infrastructure and it's all going so fast. It's incredible.”

“Wow,” Loki said. He wondered if he sounded as unenthusiastic as he thought he did.

Silence. There was no further conversation. They just sat there, eating. Pepper occasionally looked at the phone in her lap, but that was it.

It was unbearable.

Loki tore off some waffle with the edge of his fork and tried it. It wasn't too sweet, and it lacked the chewy, brick-like consistency that pervaded so many non-gluten items. He took another bite. Just waffles and syrup probably wasn't the healthiest breakfast, but, well, he was eating, which was a miracle. In his chronically passive opinion: whatever.

Something—the screech of chair against floor; shoulders up, a hitched breath—and then Natasha was gone and it was only the three of them there.

Loki tried to ignore the spike in his heart rate and kept eating.

He felt like he was intruding. He felt, to what degree of truth, he didn't know, like the silence was because of him. Tony was usually so talkative, and with Pepper? Even more so. To see him this way, quietly and politely picking at the remains of a scrambled egg, nothing else, not even joking, was the worst kind of hell.

Loki still wasn't sure why he'd come.

He scooted closer to the edge of his seat, as discreetly as he could, and tried to determine a good time to leave.

Minutes passed. There was none.

Pepper tucked her phone in her pocket, excused herself, and exited downstairs.

Oh, gods.

What was Tony thinking? What could he possibly be thinking? The last time they were alone together, there was—

instincts and old impulses, old habits, a feeling so very like that one year, rage and murder, and suddenly, they were skin-on-skin in all the wrong ways—

and it was still so fresh in Loki's memory he could almost feel the sandpaper-stubble under his fingers, the slow, even breaths betrayed by a terrified heart. What was it like for Tony?

“You know,” he said then, “the fact that you're feeling guilty about this says a lot about you.”

Loki gave him a vague, unconvinced frown. “Does it really?” he asked, and somewhere between the lines: how could you tell? “If I killed someone and then felt bad about it, would that change what I did?”

“That's not the same.”

“I'm making an analogy.”

“Okay, well—”

“Why are you so intent on justifying my actions?”

“Well, see—” Tony stopped, mid-sentence, mid-gesture, and then closed his mouth and leaned back. “Uh… shit. Gimme a second.”

That's fine! Loki almost said; I'll just keep panicking over here while you choose the most distressingly inopportune moment possible to hesitate. This was not something to hesitate on. This was the worst thing to hesitate on. The dread was rising in his chest again—

and he took a few deep breaths, hyper-conscious of his posture, how obvious he was being, and waited

waited, waited—

was Tony trying to drive him insane?—

“Remember Bucky?”

“Of course,” Loki said. “What about him?”

“Okay, I have no idea how to summarize this in a way that both makes sense and doesn't take me like, ten minutes straight, so bear with me.” Another pause, but this one was shorter, more deliberate. “He was brainwashed into a super-assassin,” Tony said. “Um… what's my point here… He did a lot of bad stuff that he couldn't control. Even after everything wore off, he still did some bad stuff he couldn't really control. Instincts, y'know? Whatever, though—that's not why I'm bringing this up. Well, kind of, but not the main part. Sorry, I ramble when I'm nervous—you totally already figured that out, it makes me seem like I actually know what I'm talking about even though I don't, surprise! Trade secret there. Uh—” Pause, once more, and then, no expression, no emotion, “He killed my parents. And it wasn't him, not really, but he still did, and I was still pissed about it for a while. Why wouldn't I be, right? We got him back, and I knew it wasn't the same person, I knew that he had changed, I knew, deep down, that I needed to forgive him and move on, but it took me a while. I did it, though. I did it because people deserve second chances.”

“I was in control,” Loki said, matching Tony's monotone re the assassination. “I knew what I was doing. I remember it all.”

“Right, but—”

“I enjoyed it,” Loki continued, unfazed. Stab: a hard truth; Tony wavered ever so slightly, visible only in the shadows of his eyes. “I felt every kill.” Stab; another dip in confidence, another clear, heartbreaking loss of faith. “It felt right. It felt so right. I welcomed the chaos like an old friend. It wasn't just Thanos. I always had it in me. It's in my blood to kill.”

And still, Tony didn't move, didn't say a word; he merely sat, stone-faced, a faint quiver to his eyes' sheen, like he was holding back tears, and listened.

“I don't deserve a second chance,” Loki said. “Look at me. Look what I did with it. Don't waste your kindness on me. You'll only disappoint yourself.”

Truly: he couldn't tell if he was lying or not. In his mind, he wasn't. In Tony's—

“No. I don't care. I'm trying. I'm trying, and you can't stop me.”

“What happens when I snap again?”

One second, and then two, and Tony didn't have an answer, and Loki waited, as always.

Three. Four. Loki counted.

“My closest friends have all tried to kill me,” Tony said. Then he shrugged, added, “Maybe not all—Pepper hasn't, not yet—but most of them. Whatever.”

It wasn't just whatever; that innocent terror in his eyes hadn't faded one bit. It was so far from whatever.

The cold died a little, and Loki felt his brows go up in looming tears, felt his throat tighten, and he said, “I'm sorry.” Always that: I'm sorry. There was nothing else left. “I'm sorry I'm like this. I'm sorry I did all that.”

He was lying, his conscience screamed. Steve Rogers was right. They were all right. He deserved to have—

“I know,” Tony said.

—burned, why didn't he—

“You don't know anything,” Loki said in response, and Tony sighed.

“Look at me. You look at me. I'll keep giving you chances. I don't care what you think: you deserve them. You deserve so much for what you did for us, what's happened to you.”

Tony stopped, and there was the briefest instant where Loki knew he was remembering the previous night; where they were both remembering it. That one instant, as short as it lasted, felt longer than anything.

“I don't go down that easy,” Tony said. “It takes more than a threat to break me these days.”

Confident words didn't hide everything else.

The flit of his lower lip. The steady, unnaturally maintained pace of his breaths. The tension.

“Look at me, Loki.”

He did.

“You're on edge,” Tony said. “Constantly. You're always watching for danger. I pushed you twice. You acted out twice. They're called instincts, and yours are so trained to react to the smallest things that you can't help it. I can't blame you for something like that.”

Loki would have argued, but it was pointless. Arguments with Tony Stark had their one, predestined victor, and it wasn't the opposition.

“What will it take to make you hate me?” Loki asked.

“Oh, you're making me think now. Hm. Kill my friends and family? Necromance my dad back to life and have him haunt me? I don't know. Why? Do you want me to hate you?”

Yes.

He deserved it.

“Loki.”

He looked at the floor.

“I can't do that,” Tony said. “I'm sorry.”

“Alright,” Loki muttered.

He left before Tony could continue the conversation, stopping just to add his fork and plate to the dishwasher, and again as a jab of dizziness floated over him. Tap, tap, tap: toes on that invisible tightrope, fingers clawing restlessly at his side, waiting, poised, like he always did.

No attempts to follow were made. Loki checked, every two or three or so seconds, through those same uneasy, reflexive looks over his shoulder.

He could never be sure.

He couldn't say when or why; he was perched there in his room for eternity and a day, staring out the window and picking at his knuckles. He only knew that at some point, without really meaning to or wanting to, he was in the bathroom, on his knees, and he closed his eyes and purged what little he'd eaten.

 

The day's progression was an agonizing crawl.

Each minute felt like an hour; each hour felt like ten. Past skimming old books, chipping at knives, and dozing on the couch, there was nothing to do, and Loki didn’t care enough to search. He sat, stood, sat again, wandered from one wall to another the way he always did, caught in his eternal haze—caught under the weight of every awful thing piling up, up, up, building with each of those infinite minutes.

Here, shame; that part where he felt like his younger self, where he hated everything he was and everything he’d done, where all he wanted was to erase himself from this reality.

Here: anger. Buried deep in his chest, burning like a thousand frustrations, anger.

Here: that ever-present boredom, that sickness of life and all it entailed.

Here: terror.

Run, and don’t look back; run, before they catch you. Always.

Again, Loki could not say why, or how, because he truly didn't have a clue. That was the way these things went: one upset led to another led to another, and before he knew it, he was spiralling.

He sat and checked his knives. Checked them again. Checked the wards around the room, checked whether he could warp: no, he couldn't; he couldn't find the focus. He couldn't teleport one inch.

Terror turned to active, genuine panic, this knowledge that he couldn't run if he needed to, that he'd be trapped, that

they would come for him, chain him up, that

he was unsafe unsafe unsafe—

and he breathed in sharply, one, two, three, breathed out, one, two, three, four, five, in once more, a little less hurriedly, a little slower and heavier, out, in, squeezed his hands together and tried to keep his thoughts clear, but why

and how

could he be calm here? Surrounded by people he still only trusted to kill him, too weak to manage a simple, life-saving spell, too dazed to plan his safety—how could he be calm?

He tried warping again, one side of the room to the other, and wound up, successfully, in the kitchen.

His nose was bleeding.

No.

No no no.

Not now. Not now, please

no—

He smeared the blood on a knuckle, held his finger there for a moment, thinking, this was bad, this was bad, this was bad, they would get him like this, so

weak, so

powerless—

He tried to turn invisible. There was that telltale shift, that prick of magic along his spine, but he had to check: he crept back into the bathroom and watched his reflection, the way it swam, stuttered out of existence almost imperceptibly when he moved, adjusting to his eyes and his eyes only. Good; if he couldn't run, he could at least hide.

His nose was still bleeding, and he was sheet-white.

He looked like a mess.

Part of him wanted to lock himself inside and stay, sit and do nothing in this illusion of safety, maybe try, as usual, to endure more than a few drops of water on his skin—maybe even succeed. The other part wanted to run.

With little else to do, Loki fixed his clothes—those comfortable, easily penetrated clothes that he was so tempted to replace—and put his boots on, walked out, still invisible, and padded upstairs to the roof. He needed air.

There was a cool breeze when he opened the door, and the sky was pink and grey. The compound looked smaller from here; he could walk the building’s entire length in a minute or two. Off in the distance, barely audible, sirens droned.

He wandered to the far end of the roof and sat.

One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.

He was safe here. They would not hurt him. Nothing was burning.

The streetlights were just turning on, and for a time, as the sky went from a dusty rose to cold, washed-out blue, they were all Loki acknowledged. This silence, those deep, contrasting city colours, that chill on his skin soothed him, and though the haze in his mind didn't fade, though he felt as tense as before, there was some peace to be found.

He closed his eyes.

Everything was moving too quickly.

For fear of what he knew would happen, for that hatred and disgust that he knew would keep him from a comfortable meal, he skipped dinner; when it looked to be around six, all he did was choke down what little hunger he felt, stand and stretch, and clumsily, tiredly tiptoe back to the stairwell, down that floor and the next, straight to the main entrance. There, he checked for a thousandth time that he was still invisible, looked once over his shoulder, and then quietly walked out.

He went to the dock and stood there, alone, looking at nothing.

The panic settled, but the fear stayed—that wide, constant pressure in his mind, thoughts and feelings telling him that he couldn’t rest, that he needed to hurry, that he was running out of time. Even after a long minute of calm, deep breaths, lost focus, empty staring at the fluorescent-tinted waters, it didn't go.

This, all of this, all of that constant stress and self-loathing picking at him, was moving too quickly.

It was exhausting.

He wandered back from the dock, skirting the main building and all its little walkways and outposts, breathing in the evening air, and continued into the park perimeter: down the central drive, past each tree and shrub and steel fence, to the first sidewalk, just strolling, listening to the muted echoes of cars and conversations around him. After a while, that was all there was.

Every now and then, when that fear in his chest spiked again and he began to feel too naked, too vulnerable, Loki checked his visibility in windows and car mirrors; it was unconscious. He saw that same offness to his appearance every time, without fail, and everyone he passed seemed harmless and he swore he couldn't be found, anyway, not here, not now, but still, he maintained those regular glances at his blind spots. If he tried not to, panic started creeping in, and so, he didn't: every two or three or four seconds, as usual, he looked. Eventually, it became automatic.

He slipped into a courtyard and sat in the nearest bench.

The city sounds seemed quieter here, like a door had been closed on them, and the grass smelled of fresh dew. He could see the moon from here, fogged up by all the smoke and light.

One, two, three, four, five.

Hold.

One, two, three, four, five.

He was tired and afraid.

Last night’s guilt was still nagging him, this too-familiar sensation that always superseded whatever gutsy apathy that should have and often did follow a less-than-moral activity. He had killed and been fine, wrought chaos and been fine. He was never one for these sorts of emotions; he let them burn before they could do any harm, and for most of his life, that had worked. That was how he got by: this chaotic lack of permanence, lack of concern for any of his consequences, lack of any long-term negativity. He killed such worries off before they killed him. It was easier.

These things always happened, and they never bothered him. Why, then, did he hate himself so much?

Was it really as FRIDAY had said?

He leaned back.

One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five.

Clothes on his skin. Wet grass and smog. Traffic.

Nothing was burning.

He stood after some time, how long, he didn’t know, and tiptoed out into the main streets once more.

He walked for hours.

 

It was close to midnight when Loki started towards the compound, and a little past when he glanced at the clock in the foyer. If he was hungry, he didn’t care; he made for the dorms, hoping he was tired enough to sleep, looking too frequently behind him, blanking again, thinking about everything and nothing. Though he wasn’t cold, no, never, he found himself shivering slightly.

The lights were on in Tony’s workshop, and the door was open a crack.

After a long, restless moment, a stab in his gut and strangled nerves rising in his throat, Loki finally dared to shed his invisibility and walked in. He had nothing better to do.

Tony didn’t look up. “Hey,” he said. “Where’ve you been?”

“Out,” Loki said. He strolled to the desk and watched as Tony tried, apparently, to restore an unidentifiable tangle of chips and wires in front of him. “Isn’t it late?”

“Time is a construct.”

“Oh.”

There was a steaming mug of coffee by one of the monitors, as well as the remnants of something sweet. Tony was already bracing for another sleepless night, it seemed.

This was nothing recent. Loki knew so. And yet, he felt that very same guilt: this was because of him.

It was like drowning all over again.

Abruptly, without much thought, he asked, “Am I a bad person?”

Tony looked up, the faintest gleam of surprise in his eyes, and said, “No. No, of course not.”

(he's lying)

“I asked Peter once,” Loki said, “and he told me the same thing. But that's not true, is it? Look at me. Really look at me.”

And Tony did, and between their tired eye contact, so slowly and gently, that buried emotion changed to old, familiar terror. Don't make me, Loki could almost hear him saying; please go away, please, I'm still scared, I swear that's just me, you're still a good person, you have never been bad, just believe me. There was only silence, though: his throat twitched like he wanted to say it, like he was about to, but there was nothing.

Loki stepped away and sat on one of the surrounding tables.

“You're not a bad person,” Tony said, toeing the chair around to face him. “You're not. Please don't say that. You do what you need to. That doesn't make you bad.”

(and all that blood on your hands?)

“Do I need to threaten you again?”

new york and—

“No. No, please don't.”

the statesman and—

“See? What kind of a monster does that?”

everything else—

“You're not a monster.”

What the fuck does he know?

“I shouldn't have asked,” Loki muttered, stepping off the table. “I'm sorry.” He turned to leave.

“Stop. Listen to me.” Tony stood. “How do I convince you?”

“You don't,” Loki said, and, after a last, “Goodnight, Tony; we'll talk tomorrow if you truly want to,” he walked out and closed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Loki couldn't remember what he dreamt that night. He only knew that he was unrested, that he felt sick, afraid of nothing, and that he wouldn't be able to fall back asleep, no matter how much he wanted to.

And gods, how he wanted to.

He stayed in bed, face pressed into the pillow, letting himself drown in the covers. He tried to keep his mind blank; tried to calm himself, slow his breathing to slumber; tried using what magic he still could to dampen his consciousness. But none of it worked. He couldn't.

He turned slightly, weakly, and stared up at the ceiling.

He didn't want to leave. He so, so didn't want to leave.

What would happen if he stayed in bed all day?

His mind wandered from there, hovering on nonsense, almost dreaming but not quite. He truly didn't care when he got up or if he got up at all. There was never anything to be done regardless; it wasn't like he was missing anything.

Time blurred after a certain point, and he wasn't sure if he was there for ten minutes or two, three, four hours. The sun creeping over the horizon might have meant something, but he wasn't watching closely enough and couldn't be bothered to. It didn't matter.

He didn't want to leave, and he didn't have the strength. Nothing could have told him why he tried anyway.

He almost collapsed when he got up, and he sat there on the edge of the bed, eyes closed, ears roaring, and waited, waited, breathing deeply and listening to his heartbeat. Carefully, after a long, aching moment, he stood again, one hand on the mattress just in case. Nothing happened this time.

He considered checking for breakfast. He was truly, genuinely hungry this morning, days upon days of not eating piled up on him, but in place of a low appetite, there was this: anger. Disgust. Self-loathing.

The one time he could have eaten, and should have, he didn't want to.

Once, this would have been a cause for worry. Past experience would tell him, no, don't you let it continue; it will only get worse. Oh, did he know. It always started like this. Three, four, eight thousand times that he had suffered through such hell, it was always the same: a meal skipped here, another one there, throw one up, and then he was suddenly worn to skin and bone and living off magic. Stop, that past experience said; stop now, stop before you can't.

He might have listened. He would have. Between every awful thing stirring in his mind, though, he just couldn't bring himself to.

He double-checked that the room was locked—paranoid instincts, fear overruling logic—and then shuffled to the couch.

Same old.

Between the brain fog, which had surpassed its peak and gotten even stronger, terrifyingly, impossibly so, there was no reading. Loki tried regardless—pulled out his last unread novel, opened it, and squinted at the words. But no: there was nothing. The words danced on the paper, and when he finally managed to steady his vision enough, he couldn't comprehend what they were saying.

He closed the book, placed it on the side table, and sighed.

He felt sick. Physically and mentally.

What he could have eaten then was something very, very small. Nothing too much: just enough to keep him alive, to curb the pain that he didn't even mind. There was still some jam in the fridge, and if those crackers he'd once seen in the lounge were still there (which they probably were, judging from the amount of dust on the box), he could try to force a few down. Maybe some fruit, or a handful of nuts, vegetables. When nothing else fit, things like that generally sufficed; they were easy on the body, and they were better than nothing.

The survival side of him said yes: do it. Jam on crackers. Search, and he might even find something milder than a wheat-based recipe.

The rest of him was a little more reluctant.

Loki stood and walked to the kitchen.

He had the jam in one hand when he realized how scared he was, how unable to leave and scout for nutrition, and he stayed there, mouth dry, gaze locked on nothing, thinking why, why, why. Such a coward, he thought, doesn't deserve to eat. And there, intruding on that: break the jar and pour the pieces down his throat until he either choked or bled to death—alarming, but unsurprising. He knew he wouldn't be able to overcome himself, and so, after a moment, after a nearly undetectable sigh and a mumbled curse at the thin air, he stuck the jam in its prior place and plopped himself in front of his bed, on the floor.

Outside, the sky was a bright, cloudless blue, with the sun shining long, dusty rays across the room. He wanted to enjoy it, and he tried. Despite his best efforts, though, he could only focus on how artificial it seemed, how much like it would vanish along with him and the rest of the world if he blinked. The dream feeling simply wasn't letting up.

He straightened himself; the metal dug into his shoulders and he winced. There was a blind spot between the door and where he was sitting, and wasn't it locked? Hadn't he just checked? But the thought of someone walking in still made him so uneasy; he wanted, needed to be alone today, and he couldn't take anything else. Not like this.

He brought the handle into his mind's grasp, flicked his wrist, and heard the lock click open behind him, and then he clicked it closed once more.

He felt no change in nerves.

With nothing left to do, Loki searched his holding space and pulled out a single dagger. He rotated it, inspecting the edges, the handle—etched cherry and slightly concave, with two dips moulded to his pointer and middle finger. It didn't look particularly dull, but eyes lied.

He flipped the dagger into a regular grip and dragged it across the back of his hand. Nothing happened, as expected, and he sharpened it and tried again; a thin line of red formed, bled freely for a few seconds. He moved to his forearm. Same thing. He sent the dagger away, making a mental note of its number and condition, and then took out another. Sharpened it. Tested it. A second line appeared on his hand and he watched, waited for it to start drying, and then healed himself and smeared the blood off.

Slowly, gradually, he continued through his collection. He moved automatically, barely aware of anything other than the weapon in his grip and the drone of the spell, magic grinding the metal away into emerald sparks. On, and on, and on.

He didn't know how many he did before he finally stopped. Three, twenty, an hour, five. It was all a blur.

The sky was orange-tinged and he felt like passing out. That was all he knew.

He shuddered and closed his eyes.

He was dying.

Gently, in a way that he knew would take him months, even years if he held on tightly enough, he was dying. His stomach had calmed down, but he still had dizziness and a stubborn dryness in his mouth to remind him that he needed something, anything—and he still didn't want to eat, but he could try to drink some water, at least, couldn't he? If he could get it out of the tap without bursting into tears like the useless

wreck

he was—

(damn it)

His throat hurt.

Waveringly, he forced himself to his feet and went back to the kitchen. He found a cup and brought it to the sink, where he stood for what felt like a solid minute, heart pounding, chest hot, counting one, two, three, four, five. Just some water—just some damn water—

He took a deep breath, released it, and then turned the tap full-strength, held the cup underneath, thinking

this was taking too long, this was taking too long, oh, gods—

He shut the water off and left before the remainder could drip out.

What are you scared of?

Loki downed the water in one gulp.

He was shivering again.

He set the cup on the counter and returned to the foot of the bed. The bars hit his shoulders again, a sharp, sudden pain, but he couldn't muster a reaction. He brought his knees up and shakily breathed in, breathed out. His pulse didn't change.

He locked his hands together, squeezing them until the knuckles went white, and counted. One, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five, one—

one two three four five—

one—

two, three, four—

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard yelling, heard them telling him he was wrong, that it would all be better if he joined—wasn't that what he wanted, a chance for revenge? Why was he being so stubborn? Didn't he see—

they're coming

that glorious

they're coming they're coming th ey're coM IN G

purpose?

Phantom pains flickered in his chest. He lost the numbers, lost track of his breaths, and he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around himself, pushing down on his ribs like it might keep him safe, but there was nothing. There was—

(you ungrateful little shit)

“Stop,” he whispered, tearing up.

There: chains around him, colder than the deepest ends of the universe, bruising his skin orange and purple. A room so quiet that if he remained motionless for long enough, didn't cry, didn't speak, the ringing in his ears turned deafening. Yells. Burning water. Pain—

so much

fucking

pain—

(and they still promised it could be even worse—)

“Don't hurt me,” he whispered to himself, one half honest, magical intention, a quarter panicked desperation, another quarter where he was just so out of it, so dazed and confused and scared, so incapable of anything else; “Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. I've been good. Please. Please—”

—as the water poured down his body, white-hot, searing him from the inside out, never leaving more than a fleeting blush in its wake. He wanted marks, proof of the hurt the likes of blood, tattered skin, scars, but there was nothing: the pain died with him, invisible to the eye, taunting

how useless, how ungrateful, how selfish—

He curled into himself and began to weep.

His wrists itched.

“I've been good,” he muttered, numbly scratching at them. Intentions: magic in his words, magic he could barely control anymore, that was so wild these days, that he wasn't even strong enough for—didn't matter. Stop. Stop it. One, two, three, four, five. Breathe. Keep breathing. “Not now,” he said, knees muffling the sound. “Not now. Leave me alone.”

The cuffs didn't fade. Loki kept counting, moving up to six, then seven. Inhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven; exhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. The panic died somewhat, but the thoughts lingered, and they were enough. He leaned into his knees and tried to stifle the tears. One, two, three, four, five, six—

Gods, he wanted to die.

too sensitive

One, two, three, four—

too fucking—

It was the water after all. It had to be. He didn't even splash it; must have been the fear alone, he thought, the fear of that familiar sound sending him into another episode—

and was that what this was? Just an episode? Was it just routine that he felt—

Crack!—like a wall breaking, crumbling, like a veil had lifted; scattered happiness masking what lay beneath like a fog, and now it was going, falling away. Everything circled back to—

that time on Jötunheim: hands that weren't his, skin that wasn't his, fear, disgust, clawing his bones out; falling, burning, bleeding, losing his mind, almost losing it again in a cell (insult to injury); old horrors, the feeling that he was worthless and he'd never mean anything, wanting to die, wanting to rot—Asgard, always Asgard—

these

old horrors that he had joked about on Sakaar (and that still felt so close) because they hadn't seemed real, because they'd been a distant nightmare, because he'd recovered and moved on and now he was here, his own person, free from all the pain and betrayal and disappointing, disappointment, except—

they hadn't gone: they had merely sunk to the bottom of his mind, where they had lain dormant for years, festering slowly, quietly, and now, here they were; here they were finally showing themselves, as if all that time had been a lie, as if nothing had ever changed. He was lost.

There, the voice:

Here is what you deserved, little god. Here is your destiny. Weep, little god; there are no miracles left for you. The universe won't save you this time.

Loki curled tighter, still clawing at the back of his hands, and kept counting. He breathed as slowly and heavily as he could tolerate, trembling as he did: inhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, hold, exhale, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Repeat.

By the time he calmed down, the skin had gone from raw to bloody, with fresh streaks slicking his hands and fingertips. He heaved a last breath and forced his fingers away.

The fear didn't return.

Loki waited, so completely expecting himself to restart the cycle, but there was nothing. No panic, no dread, no phantom touches.

Just shame.

Guilt and shame.

He let his knees fall and stared out the window, unmoving. He wondered when the next time would be. One hour? A day? If this—this, he didn't even know what to call it—if it was like everything else, it would have, should have tapered off eventually. Now, though, the idea seemed empty. The negativity tapered, sure, but it always took parts of him, and each time something happened, he never came back completely. He broke, little by little, and someday, there would simply be nothing left.

His gaze drifted to the side.

This was hell.

Wearily, he formed a knife in his right hand and held it up. It was one of the longest ones he owned, with a large grip and a curved blade almost twice the length of his hand. The surface was so smooth and well-polished that his reflection was like a mirror's; he turned it vertically and watched himself in it, expressionless. He looked pale, hollow. His eyes were still a glossy red and part of his hair had come loose and stuck to his cheek.

Another wave of dizziness hit him and the knife shook, nearly slipped from his hand. He took a slow, steady breath and lowered it, resting it on his thigh while he waited for the feeling to subside.

Just a few. Just to get the pain out.

It hadn't been about maintenance for weeks.

He tapped his shirt with his free hand, sending a surge of magic through the fabric and warping it to the floor with a thump. Underneath, he looked the same as ever: pale, nearly translucent skin, no blemishes, no hair. But, and he realized this jarringly, a little belatedly, the muscle had softened and he could almost—almost—see his ribs.

Almost, he swore; not quite. He was still fine.

How many times can a broken thing break?

“Let's see, shall we?” Loki murmured, and made the first cut.

The blade wasn't as sharp as he'd expected: he had to push hard as he dragged it against his abdomen, and even then, he barely drew blood—only an uncomfortable friction as he failed to break the skin. He lifted the knife and carefully thinned the edge, then tried again, maintaining the same pressure as before; a thick, red line bubbled up behind it and began to run almost immediately.

He rubbed at the cut, wincing, and watched as the blood reformed. It rolled heavily down his stomach, soaking into the waist of his pants and leaving a dark, wet patch in the fabric, and he frowned, waited for it to stop, but after a dozen seconds, it still showed no signs of clotting. Not that it mattered, really: he'd heal it later, one way or another. It was fine for now.

Slowly, he made another slice.

Then another.

And another.

He moved from just above his hips to his pecs, gradually filling the in-between with long, precise cuts, gaining confidence with each one—and when he hit that certain speed, that carelessness, they began to cross, drawing more blood with each intersection; the skin peeled slightly on one of them and he breathed in, struggled to stay afloat, but there was

that time and a thousand like it where

this—

He hissed a foreign swear, tightened his grip on the knife.

It was him now. It wasn't the same.

It wasn't the same.

The nausea hit him again and he dropped the weapon, ears ringing, vision red. He leaned back and closed his eyes, tried to keep himself awake. His heart was pounding.

It wasn't fear this time. He was dying, and not a gentle, months-or-years death: he was dying for real.

He stared down at his body and rubbed the cuts again, cringing as he accidentally smeared some sweat into them. They were still flowing; his entire midsection was drenched with blood, as were his pants and the surrounding floor. If he healed them now, he'd pass out regardless, but he'd live.

He raised his hand, half-filled it with magic, and then stopped.

Let it come, some distant part of him said. Let it come.

He was so tired.

His hand remained up for what seemed like forever, shaking slightly, glittering with that emerald energy. Let it come, he was still thinking. Let it come. Get it over with.

He observed the damage as best as he could with his faltering, fuzzy gaze, and sighed. There was no fear, no misery: just a resigned calm as the blood continued seeping out of him.

He took the knife, rested his hands in his lap, and let himself go slack.

He wasn't afraid. Maybe that was enough; maybe if he mustered some courage at the end, he'd have a place to go.

Maybe not.

He didn't even care.

The trembles eased a little. He managed to slow his breathing. His eyelids drooped.

He almost didn't hear the knock on the door.

That same bitter exhaustion, that same endless sympathy and kindness: “There's dinner,” Tony said. “Good dinner. Would you come try some? Please.”

fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck SHIT

Loki looked down at himself.

That promise that—

oh gods, something about

talking and—

NO NEVER MIND THAT YOU—

One, two, three, four—

picked the wrong time you should have waited should have left should have—

He sniffed and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Give me a minute,” he said, steadying his voice as best as he could. How he didn't want to heal himself, how he wanted to just—

Footsteps sounded, only to stop a few seconds later. They picked up again back towards the door. “You good?”

He—

couldn't breathe he couldn't

breat h e oh gods

he was—

fine, absolutely fine; he was fine, Loki wanted to say, but when he tried to answer, something hitched in his throat and he broke into a coughing fit. He heard

Tony muttering something about a gut feeling

and the lock clicking—

The door opened and Loki yelped, snapped around to look over the footboard, thinking

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO—

“Close the door,” he said, calculated, careful, dripping with spite; “Close the door and walk away.”

Nothing.

The words were ignored, and the blind spot failed him: Tony dropped the pick where he stood, stared briefly, and ran.

“No,” he managed, crouching in front of him. “Oh, no—”

and Loki snarled and raised the knife to a few inches from Tony's face, rage to hide the panic, but he flinched only slightly.

“God, no, you didn't—Loki! What—”

“Get out!” he hissed, jerking the blade. He didn't have the strength for a stab from that distance, but if Tony came a little closer—

“How much blood did you lose?”

“As much as is needed,” Loki calmly answered—and then, with that same edge in his voice, that same flick of the knife, he repeated, “Get. Out. I won't hesitate to use this on you. Do you understand?”

Tony stepped back, apparently touched by the threat, but did nothing more. “How much?”

“You have eyes,” Loki said. “How much does it look like?”

“Can you heal yourself?”

“I can. I won’t.”

“I’m getting help,” Tony said, standing.

“No!” Loki shrieked, grabbing his pant leg. “No. No, don't. Don't let anyone else see me like this. Please. Please don't.”

Tony stopped, half-upright, and then sat there on the floor. Some of the blood soaked into his clothes, but he didn't even react.

He silently counted the cuts.

Most were so ragged he couldn’t even tell where they started and ended.

“What happened to you?” he softly asked, looking up. “This isn’t the Loki that threw me out of a window.”

he thinks you’re pathetic

“I’ve always been like this,” Loki answered, looking away.

pathetic pathetic path—

“Like this? Trying to kill yourself?”

Loki shook his head.

( liar )

“It was Thanos, wasn’t it?”

“Why do you care?”

“I care. I just do. Talk to me.”

No, he didn't, and if he did, Loki refused to talk.

Or that was the intention, anyway.

What was it about this man?

Loki sighed and rested the knife in his lap. “It's a lot of things,” he said. “They add up.”

“Like what?”

“A lot,” he said again, and he smiled weakly, sadly. “I'd keep you here for hours describing it all. Thanos isn't even the beginning.”

“So you just decided to kill yourself,” Tony said, perfectly expressionless. “Did you even think this through? Here, of all places—you know, I could have left just now, and then that'd be on me. I wouldn't forgive myself.”

Loki's smile faded. “That's odd,” he said. “I imagined you'd be relieved. You're so…” He tilted his head; the movement was slow, uncertain, more difficult than anticipated. “On edge. That's it. Around me, all the time.” He looked at the floor, just as slowly—noise clouding his senses, so much more nausea—“I don't blame you, really,” he muttered. “We both know what happened. That's just how I am. Let me die. You'll be safer.”

“No,” Tony hissed. “No, I won't. Absolutely not. I—you're stalling. You're stalling, aren't you? Holy shit. Look at me. Look at me, Loki.”

He didn't. “I'm fine,” he mumbled, straightening himself; the knife fell to the floor with a dull clatter and he stifled a flinch. “It's just a little blood. I'm not that fragile.”

“I want to see you heal yourself,” Tony said. “Now.”

No. Please no.

Loki blanked, caught in an utter lack of focus, awareness, unable to process the words.

Leave. Leave now. Please.

His ears started ringing again—that noise, static, something else; this vague nothingness and distraction that he couldn't quite pick out. He breathed in, eyes on the blood's muted reflection of the ceiling, and breathed out.

What was he doing?

Tony slapped him.

“Ow.” Loki raised a hand to his cheek. He heaved another long, shaky breath and forced himself to look up. “Fine,” he said. “Fine, I'll do it.”

A second passed.

“I'm waiting,” Tony said.

Loki glanced at him again. Reluctantly, he lowered his hand and filled it with magic. This took him so achingly long, drawing on focus and energy that wouldn't come, that he almost expected himself to fail—to bleed out, incapable of anything else; and Tony couldn't blame him for that, could he? If nothing happened—

he could pass it off as an accident, as “I can't” rather than “I won't” and then—

He pressed his hand to his abdomen. He didn't want to; Norns, he nearly started crying for how much he didn't want to. But he did: he closed his eyes and initiated the spell.

The cuts gained a faint, glowing outline as their edges began to seal, and he winced, suddenly aware of a creeping headache, and pushed harder. Five, ten, fifteen seconds; there was little change. He grit his teeth and maintained the spell, feeling the wounds with his free hand. Twenty. Twenty-five.

Thirty left them crude, red, still hot, but they'd closed completely. Good enough.

He cleared the magic and collapsed into Tony's arms.

“Hey,” Tony said, propping him up with a grunt. “Stay with me.”

Loki mumbled something in response, what, even he didn't know, and leaned back against the bedframe. “Close the door,” he said, swallowing roughly, struggling to catch his breath. His mouth tasted like iron. “Close the door. Please.”

The door was open no more than a crack, but Tony stood regardless. He checked the halls, carefully shut it, and then returned to where Loki was sitting.

There were no words. Nothing: just ragged breathing and stifled tears.

Those ten or so seconds before Loki finally dared to look were the longest he had ever felt.

Tony sat next to him. “Why would you do this?”

“It doesn't matter.”

“It does, alright? It matters. Come on.”

Loki stared up at him, lost in thought.

It couldn't get any worse than this.

He looked to the floor again, took a deep breath. “You know,” he said after a moment, “Odin never wanted me. Not really.”

There: one weight gone, a million remaining.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “First name, huh?”

“Sometimes,” Loki said. “I'm still… I'm not sure. But that's not it. I don't know what it is. It's… everything. I told you. It all adds up.”

“Tell me about him.”

“There's nothing to say. He tried. It's not his fault this happened.” It was mine; the words hung there like embers, burning unspoken behind his lips. It was all my fault.

“What pushed you?”

No answer. Loki turned away, observed his body. The blood was still wet, covering most of his exposed skin from his last ribs to his pants' waistband; there, it continued spreading through the fabric at a slow, almost undetectable pace. It felt cool.

“I don’t know,” he said, not looking up. “Even if I did, I shouldn’t tell you. You'll never let me live this down.”

“I let you live down the other times.”

“The other times,” Loki muttered. “They'll keep coming, won't they? They'll never stop.” He froze, realizing that he was holding back tears, that there was an ache in his throat and eyes and a rising agony in his chest, and breathed in hard. “Maybe I'll figure it out,” he quietly continued. “Maybe I won't. I usually do, but maybe this is the last piece, you know? I can't keep breaking. It has to end somewhere.”

“No. No, Loki. Don't say that. Please.”

“Why not?” He raised his voice: “Why not? Why shouldn't I? Do you know what I've been through?”

“No,” Tony said, “but I can—”

“Empathize?” Loki hissed; a sob cut into the word. “No, you can't. Torture? Can you empathize with that? Oh—maybe the isolation. Sure. Two years of it, back to back, can you empathize with that? Wait, here!” Crack: a different corner of that same wall, and he lost that careful reservation to his truths; “Finding out your own father stole you for the sake of a union between kingdoms! How about that? No, he didn’t want me. He never wanted me. I could see it in his eyes long before I even knew. Do you know how that feels?”

“I don't,” Tony admitted. “Not completely. But I can relate. I’ve been alone. My dad—jeez, I don't think he wanted me either. Do you see me doing this, though?”

“You're not me! Suffering is relative.” Those tears Loki was holding back began to well; he didn't care. “Look at me,” he said. “Tell me, don't you know that? You're smart enough.”

“Yes, I know,” Tony said. “Do I ever know. But you can't give up so easily.”

“I can and I will. Do I need to wait? Is it you who's stopping me? Fine: I will! How long do you have left? Thirty, forty years? That’s nothing. That's the blink of an eye for me. It’s no bother.”

“What? That’s not—”

“Look! Is this what a god looks like?” Loki hissed. “How pathetic. I was fine before he came back into my life—just fine. For six years! I got past it. Hell, I joked about it. Everything was fine. And then that bastard waltzes in and destroys my family, nearly kills my brother, and suddenly—”

there's all this—

“That’s life!” Tony said. “Shit happens sometimes. It’s—”

Not your fault; but wasn’t it?

“How can you say that?” Loki growled, widening the distance between them. “All of this is because of things I’ve done. Thanos wouldn’t have found me if not for something I did!” he said; he pointed to himself for emphasis. “He wouldn’t have gone after our ship if not for something I did!” He pointed again. “I could go on forever. Everything that’s ever happened to me has been because of my own lack of judgment and no one else’s. Am I speaking clearly? Maybe you’d like me to try another language.”

“How about this?” Tony lifted his hands to his mouth, took a little breath, and said, “Even if something is your fault, you don’t suddenly deserve to die as a result. Am I speaking clearly?”

Maybe he was, and so—

Loki switched: “Revenge was all that kept me going,” he said, “and I had it. There's nothing left now! It's just fear”—the tears broke—“and self-loathing. Day after day after day. I can’t see—”

past it; not one bit. Not what had been before

and not a time when he would be getting better rather than worse—

just those big and little terrors and spikes in his soul and constantly looking over his shoulder and the spaces between getting smaller and smaller until that was all he knew—

“Please,” he said, “let me die.” He sniffed, that quick, choking kind, and began scraping his wrist. “I can't. I can't do it. Not again.”

Tony placed a hand over his. “Stop.”

“No—”

and as if on cue, there was a kick in his gut then, this feeling from one touch to another, this sensation of chains, bruised and bloody skin, wanting, needing to take the damage out, feeling like it was some cancer inside him—

“Let me die,” he said; he wasn’t fighting the sobs anymore. “Please. Please, I don't want to live like this. I’m exhausted. I can’t.”

“Hey. Look at me.”

“Why, so you can see me crying?” Loki faced him. “Fine! Go ahead. Tell me how pathetic I am.”

Tony shook his head. “No. You're not. You’re one of the strongest people I know. This? This doesn't change a thing.”

“Shut up,” Loki hissed. “You don't know anything.” He turned and reached for the knife, only for Tony to tighten the grip on his hand, hold him back—no no nO—“Let me go. Let me go!”

“I'm not moving.”

“Then you take that blade and you put it through my neck right now, or I swear—I swear, I'll take you with me! I'll kill us both.”

“Will you?”

Yes.

Yes, so definitely, so certainly. He would. If that was what it took—

“I will,” Loki said, his words a low growl.

Tony released his hand. “Will you?”

Loki swallowed hard. The tears had not gone. “I will,” he quietly said.

There, a third time: “Will you?”

Nothing.

Loki could not form an answer.

“I'll clean you up,” Tony said. “Is that alright?”

Nothing again. He felt like a deer in headlights.

Tony waited.

One, two, three, four, five.

One, two, three, four, five.

Inhale.

Hold.

Exhale.

Repeat.

“Yes,” Loki managed, nodding weakly. “Please.”

There were a few seconds when neither of them knew quite what to do, and another few when Tony picked the shirt from the floor and considered it. The fabric was dark and already wet along the edges, so it wouldn't matter much if he used it to soak up the blood; Loki tipped his head in an agreeing almost-shrug.

Tony started from the top.

Loki would never know this, but if he'd looked less at the walls, the floor, anywhere other than Tony's face, he might have noticed some mild, just-short-of-expertly hidden horror behind those magpie eyes and realized that he had been so close to the brink that one of his glamours, one that he didn't even remember most days, had begun to fail. Before the Æsir skin, somewhere between it and the deep, ashen blue of his heritage, was a separate mask hiding a very different kind of hell, and through the flickers…

Scars.

The flashes of undisguised skin showed hundreds of faded scars of every shape and size, some so rough that Tony wondered if they'd been torn by hand. Most were old enough that they didn't do anything more than discolour the surface, leaving no protrusions or indentations, but their forms told stories: a flaying here, a slash there, something carved, something broken. Somewhere, there might have even been a brand, though Loki would never know this either; he hadn't and refused to ever check. For all intents and purposes, there wasn't—not that, were there something such, and not any of the other marks. Ignorance, as always, was bliss.

Tony hesitated at his hips. He looked up, saw no objection, and then carefully wiped around the waistband.

“You're probably not hungry after this,” Tony said, drawing back. “Are you?”

Loki shook his head.

Tony glanced at his chest, half-expecting another flicker, but there was nothing. He sighed and bent to clean the drying pool from the floor, saying, “Remind me to sanitize this.”

Loki grunted something in response and then clasped the bedframe with both hands, hauled himself to his feet—stumbled abruptly as a jab of dizziness cut into him, driving the metal into his waist. “Poor judgment,” he hissed, sucking in a pained breath. “Shouldn't have bothered. Can you—”

“Yeah,” Tony said, standing. He bunched the shirt into one hand and looped his free arm around him. “Take it easy.”

“I'm heavy,” Loki muttered, although, without much thought, he did submit to the assistance and all but collapse against Tony, drape an arm over his shoulder to match him.

“Not that heavy,” Tony said. “Come on.”

“Just the bed. I just want to…” Sit down; it was obvious enough, even without finishing the sentence.

Loki took a slow, shaky step, and then another.

Some ten seconds slid by before he reached the side of the bed. He plunked himself on the edge, heart pounding, and rode out a fresh wave of vertigo with a lengthy wince.

“You good?” Tony asked, stopping in front of him.

“Fine. I'm just… tired.”

“Could I trust you to sleep?”

In spite of everything, Loki laughed: a painful, breathy chuckle bordering on tears. “You can't trust me for anything,” he said, smiling up at Tony. “You know that.”

“Hey, no. Don't say that.”

“Why not?”

“Just don't, okay? Tell me, can I trust you to sleep? Are you stable?”

Was he?

He looked down at himself, eyeing where the cuts had been—where many of them were still a little hot, a little red. Gods, he was so close; just a few minutes later and he would have been dead, too far for even his magic to save him. He wasn’t sure whether to feel frustrated or relieved.

Maybe both.

“I lost a lot of blood,” Loki eventually answered, his words little more than a whisper. “The spell can’t fix that. And I’m…” Malnourished. Dehydrated. All of the things that could kill a person, and that was without exsanguination. Was he even trying to stay alive?

(No.)

(He wasn't.)

“That’s it,” he said. “I just lost a lot of blood.”

“Which is fucking terrifying,” Tony said, “and you know why? We can’t do transfusions. Thor’s the only person I can think of and one, he’s too far, and two, I don’t even know if it would work. Do you guys have blood types?”

“It’s more complicated than that. We’re… not related.”

“Well, I mean—most donors aren’t.”

“That’s not what I’m saying! We’re not—” The same. That wall was still holding, and Loki bit back some surge of something in his chest, panic, tears, he didn't know, before finishing, “We're not the same race. Blood types or no, it wouldn’t work. He’s a completely different physiology.”

A squint, followed by a curious shake of the head. “How different could you be?” Tony asked.

Oh, didn't he always wonder.

“I refuse to discuss that,” Loki said; the words came harsher than intended. “It won’t work and that’s all you need to know.” His expression lightened somewhat. “I’m stable,” he gently assured. “I promise.” And, for once, he meant it.

Tony sat beside him.

“Look at me,” he said, just as Loki turned and pinned his gaze on the bathroom door. “I need you to know something: I am always here for you. For everyone in this building. I've told you this before, but I'll say it again, and it's that I feel responsible for the people who live here, including you. It kills me to see you like this.”

“After everything I've done,” Loki muttered, tears in his voice, still unable to face him. “Why?”

“Honestly? I don't know.”

“Pardon?”

“I don't know.” Tony shrugged. “All these grudges in my life, you'd think I'd be a little more apprehensive, but I'm not. Lord knows how that happened.”

Seconds passed.

Once more, softly, Loki began to cry.

After another moment, after a question or two considered and abandoned, Tony asked, “Do you want a hug?”

Loki managed a slight nod, and Tony pulled him close and let him cry into his shoulder.

“Do you want to talk?”

“No,” Loki mumbled between sobs.

“And you’re not hungry?”

Again: “No.”

“Okay.”

And that was that: Loki leaned a little deeper into Tony and kept crying, and Tony maintained the embrace, tenderly stroking his back, and there was nothing else.

The tears eased eventually, and Loki fell asleep in his arms.

Tony stopped when he noticed this, and, for fear of waking him, for fear of both inciting an attack and robbing him of such precious rest, he didn’t get up. He placed two fingers across Loki's neck, verifying that there was a pulse and that it wasn’t weakening, and then drew back and simply stayed.

After some several minutes, Tony took out his phone and messaged Pepper: something came up, he couldn’t come down, please put two servings in the fridge, no, it wasn’t an Iron Man thing, and no, he couldn’t elaborate; it was too long of a story. He silenced it, stuffed it in his pocket, and, slowly, carefully, struggling ever so slightly under the above-average weight, he pulled Loki into a horizontal position.

The worry kept him there, sitting and periodically checking for a steady heartbeat. No boredom, no urge to leave: he stayed, all diligent kindness and concern, and did nothing. He knew what it was like to be so vulnerable, and even if he wanted to leave, even if that boredom showed itself at some point and even if it turned unbearable, he couldn't. It wasn't in him.

This was going to be a long night.