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Becoming

Chapter Text

The vents are dark, and quiet.

Loki pitches backwards, narrowly missing the end table.

There is nothing, as if the world is frozen, then a cyclone of ThorthroughthewallTonybythebodyStevecaughtbetweeneverything. The dwarves come, the same ones as before. They bring back the Loki who reached into his mind and left him torn apart. Steve carries the body downstairs and the dwarves step out to have a quiet conversation with JARVIS. He stays and watches until Tony and the old man leave, his finger tapping staccato against the side of the vent.

When they are gone, Clint drops out of the ceiling into his room and collapses on the bed, hand clenched tightly on the grip of his bow. He doesn’t sleep until he can feel the steady silent presence of Natasha and the dip in the mattress as she sits down next to him.

Chapter Text

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

The Velveteen Rabbit




-

Father had stayed through the evening, speaking in quiet tones of things that didn’t matter because all Loki cared about then was the sound of his voice. It was an anchor, holding him steady in the rush threatening to tear him apart.

Memories overlapped and shrugged out of his reach as he tried to make sense of them, everything before It felt like a different world compared to the quieter thoughts of the Safe Place that were his and not his all at once. They would not stay where he set them, and so he was forced to wade against their tide.

The space behind his eyes aches.

“It will pass,” Father tells him. 

Loki rubs at his temples.

It is a relief when Stark stays out of the workshop for the duration of the visit, if he had come down Loki thinks he might have fled. Father would have stopped him from reacting too poorly, but when he sees the Man of Iron, Loki sees fire and blows, shattered glass, and a gentle hand running through his hair while holding him near.  The conflicting instincts to both huddle closer and to attack leave him disoriented; it is all he can do to focus on the one thing that is the same in all his memories.

The archer. 

Who hates him with a consistency that is reassuring.

It isn’t until the sky becomes dark that the clashing has at least become manageable. When he reaches for the thread inside there are only the echoes of calm that were always missing with Thor. It is… not what he was expecting from the Allfather. From the Hjaldrgoð.

Loki can still feel the remnants of Thor in his mind where it burns raw and aches. There has been too long for it to settle into his core and he is unsure whether the feeling will pass or if it stay with him until the end of his days. He pulls the fiber of Odin over him as a balm, letting the weight of it blanket him from the part that still cries for bloodfeardestruction.

He stands on the roof of the building, watching the wisps of light that flicker around in the wake of his father’s world walking. When he finally turns, Stark is standing in the doorway.

“So,” he says. “You’re living in my tower now.” Loki wraps his arms around himself. “We should probably set some ground rules.”

-

The document is held to the door of the refrigerator with an atrociously colored magnet. Stark calls it his “Skippy’s List.”



For want of anything else to do, Loki has followed Tony back to the lab. He stands there (Tony carefully plays with a gauntlet, fine-tuning joints that are already as finely tuned as possible) and looks around as though he is not sure where he is.  Neither speaks and when Dummy makes cautious ventures toward Loki he does not seem to notice.

Eventually the (Asgardian? Fuck if he knows) drifts to the couch and lays his hand over the tablet sitting on its edge, picking it up gingerly to examine.

At three in the morning Loki excuses himself.  Tony watches him make his way to what had been Thor’s level of the tower through the security feed. Watches as Loki moves casually around the floor. Watches as he shoves everything that belonged to Thor into a closet where he would not have to look at it.

Tony leaves the feed on all night.

Dummy cries at him from the corner. He walks over and wraps his arms around his bot.

-

On the far wall where an over extravagant screen used to hang are tacked papers and rune-writing pieced together in a stilted map of the last few months. It is incomplete, but he is still working.  The twisting memories that overlap and try to combine with his own are beginning to smooth down, at least when Loki stands before the wall.

The windows of his chambers are darkened. Looking through at the wide skies and hints of green makes him miss the pastures and fields and ability to leave. He blocks them out so he will not have to be reminded that he can’t. That despite Father’s assurances, he is still a prisoner and he is not sure there is anywhere worth leaving to.

Stark is flippant with him. Not cruel, but Loki can feel the edges of memories where he is held tightly and smiled at and reassured, and despite everything he wants that back (except for the times he doesn’t because if life has taught him anything it’s that being vulnerable is the worst thing you can do to yourself). When Stark looks at him he can see anger and pain and frustration, all shadowed by a sadness that Loki does not dwell on too carefully.

He avoids the lab more often than not. While the tide of his clashing memories is beginning to ebb he can’t look at Stark without it rolling back to life. Some morningsafternoonsnights he finds himself standing by the doors without memory of having gotten there. He reached out and touched them once, quietly resting his palm against the glass, but they do not open.

He can see the Man of Iron manipulating the illusions he has cast around himself, face lit up by soft blues. The man does not turn in his direction. Loki allows himself a minute to Want, and then goes back to his quarters.

It is alright, it is still better than Thor. Stark at least has reason to hate him.

One of these times, before he breaks the habit (and he will break it) he passes through the common area and pauses by the kitchen the same way he did the lab. There is a glint out of the corner of his eye and he snaps to the right, fingers closing around the shaft of an arrow centimeters away from his face. The archer crouches alongside the couch, breathing quickly and strung tight as though he had been startled out of his seat. Another arrow is in his hand, ready to be nocked. Loki studies the tip (standard) of the one fired at him before putting it down on the nearest surface and leaving immediately. 

He tries not to pass through the common area again while the Midgardians are present.

The majority of his time is spent combing through the living space that used to belong to Thor. Or perhaps still does, but though he has not spoken to the being that runs the tower since his reawakening he has been left under the impression that his not-brother is no longer welcome.

Unless that is what they want him to think.

-

There is noise and light and fire, and all he can feel is the pressure of the air against his suit and the weight of the bomb in his hands.

He talks to no one this time. Sometimes he does; sometimes it is Fury, or the Captain. Or Pepper. Sometimes the noise fades to the sound of her voice and tears trail down his cheeks in a way he cannot control.

Through his visor are glimpses of the city falling, then the split in the sky where blue cuts to blackness and he is flying into it. He sees the bomb leave his hands while the world goes dark around him, vision fading to nothing. There is the void and silence.

Where there should be the roar of the Hulk is a softer sound and he blinks his eyes open to his Loki pleading and Thor lifting him in the air again by the neck. Knuckles strained white. 

Tony wakes up.

-

Across the room Steve watches workers rebuild the wall. The larger pieces of debris, shattered out of place at the force of Thor’s fall, had been cleared within a day of Odin’s final visit, but Steve is always finding smaller bits when he walks through the area.

He had offered to help them earlier; pleased to be involved with the process of hauling construction materials to the appropriate level of the tower, but when the building was underway he stepped aside. It didn’t hurt to watch though, in that he was learning from the process and also that he was worried about the number of unknowns in the Avengers’ living space. Both Tony and JARVIS reassured him that this particular team had been involved in previous construction (Tony sometimes joining them when he was bored or needing distraction) and that they were trust-worthy. It’s not that Steve doesn’t believe them, the men had all seemed nice enough, it’s just that he has begun to lean on the side of caution. And there is little else for him to do.

It’s nice to have something to occupy himself. 

The night everything happened Steve had brought Loki down to the lab as requested, left him on the couch and walked back upstairs. On his way he was passed by Tony and the visiting king, neither looked at him as focused as they were on their destination. Steve sat on the couch in the common area and rubbed his face. The first person he sees afterwards is Bruce, and that isn’t until the next morning.

It was another week before he saw Clint.

Sometimes when there are no distractions, no battles to fight, it feels like everything is closing in around him, out of his control. Like the ice. He is cold and alone and there is nothing he can do.

Thor’s gone, no two ways about it, and if he were to come back Steve can’t quite wrap his mind around the Asgardian being welcome again (at least in the tower). It hurts. There had been moments with Thor, before all of this, that Steve had felt a kinship. Both struggling with a learning curve, a rediscovery of a world long changed and foreign, and for just a while he wasn’t so desperately alone in a place he didn’t always understand.

Until Steve was reminded with shocking clarity that they were not alike at all.

Three floors up is another who is probably more lost than Steve right now. But he’s not sure how to make that work, or if he even wants to.

He does manage to call Colonel Rhodes, who has since requested leave to come to New York. During their first conversation, the tenor in the man’s voice left Steve with the impression that James Rhodes Does Not Like Them around Tony. It is a feeling that Bruce shares. Steve isn’t sure about the rest of them, but the look in the other man’s eyes is protective and while knowing that Tony is watched over pleases him, being the focus of that distrust makes him nervous. Further conversations had all cemented that feeling.

He wonders if Pepper knows yet.

He doesn’t know who tells Fury, or when it happens. It should have been him, as team leader. But it wasn’t. All he knows is that soon after the king of Asgard leaves, S.H.I.E.L.D. is knocking at their door, or Tony’s specifically, and because it’s Tony they are ignored.

For whatever reason, perhaps in the renovations after the Chitauri invasion the security of the tower had been heavily upgraded, none of the agents are allowed access. Neither are they successful in over-riding the blocks as Agent Coulson had been in the past (so Steve is told).

When the next mission comes in it should have been a lot more obvious what Fury was trying to do.
They’re called out for a negligible situation that mostly involves them standing around for intimidation purposes while field agents do the real work. After being released from duty their pit stop at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s New York office is hijacked.  Agent Hill is waiting when they land and leads them, stone-faced, to a conference room.

“You cannot honestly expect us to let him stay with you.”

Fury would probably be pacing if he allowed himself to pace, but he doesn’t so he looms instead. Behind him stands Clint, a silent sentinel.

“Where else do you expect him to stay?” Bruce looks up, tired even though he hadn’t been needed. “He’s already proven that he is fully capable of escaping from every cell you throw him in. It only worked the last time because he was compelled to stay in it by Thor. And don’t ask me how that works, because I honestly have no idea.”

Tony clears his throat loudly; if he had his phone he wouldn’t have even bothered looking at them.

“Can we talk about this later?” 

“Got somewhere more important to be, Stark?”

“Actually, yeah, I do. I’ve got a factory inspection tomorrow and a twelve hour flight because Pepper won’t let me go in the suit, and considering I would have been on my way already if I hadn’t agreed to help out with this waste of time…” Fury doesn’t actually growl at him, but Steve thinks it might be close; Tony does not appear to notice. “Snap snap. Let’s go.”

“You want right to the point?  Fine. The fuck were you thinking, negotiating with Thor’s father.”

“That he was standing in my living room with two hands full of god weapons and just got done destroying the floor’s structural integrity?”

Both Fury and Hill’s wrath are directed solely at Tony, it’s as though the rest of them aren’t in the room. Quite frankly, Steve is a little relieved. “I don’t care about what he did to your tower, I care about the fact that you, without the proper clearance or training, made promises to a foreign dignitary that you had no right to make.”

“Do you realize,” Agent Hill slams her hands on the table, “that anything we do now could be perceived as a breach of contract and an act of war?!”

“What exactly makes you think you have the authority to form a treaty with alien monarchy?!”

Tony looks Fury dead in the eye. Then he shrugs.

“Well there’s not a whole lot we can do about it now.”

“GodDAMNIT, Stark!”

Laughter bubbles hysterically out of Steve and leaves him gasping. Nothing. Like the ice. There is nothing they can do.

Tony flies out as soon as they get to the tower. 

-

Loki does not sleep. He does not sleep so he should not dream.

But he drifts, phasing through memories until he lands in that of his resetting, only instead of Eitri it is Thor reaching out for him with blackened narrow eyes, expression like the void he fell through after the bridge. Loki is frozen, colder than the ice of Jotunheim. The pressure of the fingers digs into his neck and he chokes, can’t lift his hands to free himself because they had turned him off until he is startled out of it only by the sound of a loud crack. He freezes, half collapsed over the couch, for a second believing the sound had been his neck, and then he looks up. On the other side of the quarters is the kitchenette, expensive marble counter broken though, ripped apart by magic.

Loki lifts it up and wedges it back in place.

-

He is not always sure what to do with himself. 

Before, during the times he was tired and empty he would close his eyes and see the string that tied him together with Thor, could see the wantscravesneeds of the other pass through it and give him direction. 

The string is gone now and in its place is a different one. One that has nothing it needs of him other than to Be.

It is unsettling. He is not used to having no direction. Even when Thor was banished, Loki had stretched out for that last mission (the Jotun) to guide him.

With spending so much time trying to wrap himself around his own memories and purge the wreckage of Thor left behind, it takes Loki longer than it should to realize he didn’t bring the tablet with him the night when he left the lab.  The tablet that isn’t really his, but feels like his only connection to… everything. There is so little contact between him and anything else now, trapped as he is, that the loss of the device begins to feel like the void.

He needs it.

Outside the sky is dark, Loki waits because beyond movie nights (and it is Monday, so he has no fear of this occurring) most of the Avengers have secluded themselves away in their usual haunts by this time.  Nonetheless, he slinks through the common area, as close to the wall as it can be without clinging to the surface. If they should appear he wants no one at his back. Luck is with him for once. 

Down the half stair he stands in front of the glass, breath heavy. He can see no one inside; the machines are in their stations. Loki presses a hand to the glass.

Nothing happens, this does not surprise him.

“JARVIS?”

The pause that lasts is longer than he thinks should be necessary, but Loki is in no position to complain and is willing to wait. Finally, when it seems as though the A.I. has accepted he will not leave, there is a response. 

“Mr. Odinson.”

“May I enter?”

“During Sir’s absence the lab is in lock-down.”

“But I need to- It is only for a small thing- the tablet, I… I left it.” He cranes his head to see the couch from the angle he is standing at. “There- on the couch. I thought I had put it down on a table, but Mr. Sta- but Stark must have moved it.”

“I’m afraid I cannot allow you to enter.”

“I’ll only be a moment.” 

“The length of time is irrelevant. As dictated by security protocol the workshop and all sensitive data are under freeze until Sir returns.”

“What if I fetch one of the others?” He does not want to, but if he must… perhaps the Captain. “Or one of the robots could bring it to the door; I would not have to step inside.” The A.I. has either turned his attention elsewhere (which Loki does not believe for a second) or has decided to ignore him. “I hardly see why this is such a problem.”

As the silence continues on, Loki fights against the bubble of anger growing in the pit of his stomach. He has been reasonable. It is a simple request; there is no reason that one of the presented alternatives should not be accepted. A voice inside tells him that it would not be so bad to wait for Stark’s return, surely it will not be long, but it is overshadowed by the others that want everything to Bow.

“You will open this door,” he orders.

There is no response, which is answer enough.

Loki slowly turns to the closest camera, near-rage frothing up inside him, and holds eye contact just long enough for JARVIS to know exactly what he’s going to do. 

He teleports inside.

JARVIS sets off the alarms.

-

Factory inspections are dull.

When Tony strolls into the tower, Happy following him with a takeout bag and coffee, Clint and Steve are waiting.

“Awww, honey, did you miss-”

Clint immediately stalks over and looks at Tony out of the corner of his eye like Everything Was His Fault (which is ridiculous because he just got here), grumbles, “Skynet and Frankenstein got into a pissing match while you were gone,” and then walks out of the building.

Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve who makes an aborted gesture that dwindles off into nothing.

“I kind of thought they’d get along?”

There are no words. Happy taps Tony’s shoulder with his styrofoam cup, which he takes, and hands the bag of burgers to Steve with a pat on the shoulder and a smile like he’s laughing at them on the inside.

Now that he thinks about it, Tony has no idea what Happy knows about the past couple months.
He should probably figure that out. Or you know, ask, but that’s boring.

Steve follows him through to lobby and past the security check point; they don’t speak until they are alone. In the elevator Tony leans back against the wall, not actually believing this is his life, while Steve stands by the buttons and runs his gaze along the ceiling.

“Alright, just- walk me through what happened.” 

“Loki broke into the lab. We-”

“What? He’s allowed in the- okay, he was allowed- he’s been in the lab since. Hasn’t he?”

JARVIS speaks up from the ceiling. “Not since the day Mr. Borson visited, Sir.”

“Really?”

“I am quite certain.”

Steve’s brow furrows in thought. Tony rubs his forehead.

“But why would you-”

“Mr. Odinson’s entrance into the lab violated safety protocol. I was forced into action.” A long drink of coffee ensures that Tony is able to collect himself before speaking again as well as mentally review the last update he remembers making to the lab’s safety procedures.

“That is not written into the protocol J, I would know-”

“You gave me permission to adjust the emergency procedures to ensure your safety. It was a matter of personal discretion.”

“My safety? JARVIS, I wasn’t even in the same country.”

“After careful processing of the current dataset and previous encounters with Mr. Odinson I was able to extrapolate possible outcomes.  Lock down seemed the most prudent option available.”

“Why did he want to get in the lab?”

“His reasons are irrelevant.” 

“Of course they are relevant. JARVIS you are in time out. No talking for you.”

There is a noise that Tony associates with his A.I.’s version of an irritated huff and then the sound cuts completely. Tony picks at the lid of his coffee cup; his kids are learning his bad manners, they should spend more time with Pepper.

The elevator door opens and Tony walks into the common floor, Steve still shadowing him with burgers and trying to tell him something that Tony isn’t listening to. Across the room Natasha is perched delicately on the edge of the table, phone in hand. She glances up at them for a second and then ignores their existence. Bruce steps out from the kitchen wiping his hands with a towel, hair thoroughly windswept as though he had been outside for several hours. 

“Where you been, buddy?”

“The roof, I needed to- needed a moment away from… things. Anyway, JARVIS suddenly stopped responding on my way downstairs. Everything alright?” Tony rolls his eyes; Bruce looks concerned for a second, but then visibly tucks the expression away since Tony isn’t worried. “I suppose as long as he’s fine…”

For the first time since the elevator doors had closed Steve is able to get a word in. “Tony put him on time out.”

Bruce chokes on whatever he had been about to say; Tony waves him off.

“He’s sulking. It’s fine.”

As soon as the burger bag is on the table Tony takes one out and unwraps it. He thinks about poking Natasha and it’s enough for her to look at him because it’s like she’s psychic.

“Any word on hurricane Fury?”

“He’s still angry, if that’s what you mean.” She turns her attention back to her phone.

“Well obviously. I’d assumed that was his baseline with me.”

“Irritation is his baseline, this time he wants to shoot you.” Steve looks up, alarmed; Natasha gives him her version of a reassuring smile. “Not a fatal shot.”

Steve does not look reassured. Bruce smiles faintly from behind his hand.

“Where is Loki anyway?” Tony lets his eyes wander around the room, the repairs are basically done, but if he’s going to have to get the wall painted he might as well consider a new color. Steve gives an exasperated sigh, which probably means that’s what he was trying to tell him earlier. Natasha is matter of fact in her answer.

“In the Hulk Tank.”

“… you locked him up?!”

“The choice was either him or Doctor Banner after the alarm sounded.” Bruce winces a little as she gestures to him. “And at this point Bruce is the safer of the two to be left to his own devices. I watched the feed Tony, I saw him teleport inside. It was clearly breaking in. Precautions had to be taken.”

“Did anyone ask why he needed to get inside?”

A chair creaks as Steve settles down into it, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Sparks blew out of something when we got there, then Clint dropped down from the ceiling and Loki- it was-… he clammed up a bit.”

“He’s an alien with a history of hostility and aggression.” Natasha tucks her phone away. “Action first, questions later.” Tony grumbles in what Pepper would most likely call petulance. 

“You have a history of hostility and aggression.”

“And that is exactly what S.H.I.E.L.D. did when Clint and Coulson brought me in. Do not act like he is above protocol because you got attached.”

Steve stands.

“Why don’t we get him, clear everything up.”

“No.” They all look over at him, but Tony doesn’t care. “You can all stay here; I am going to go fix whatever mess you made.” He looks firmly from Natasha to Steve and back again, able to hear the protest Steve is about to make before it comes out of his mouth. “Watch the video feed for all I care, but no one’s coming with me.”

“Tony-”

No one, Rogers.”

When Tony opens the door to the Hulk-proof room in the tower (a veritable play pen of everything he’s discovered Bruce’s green rage monster enjoys) Loki is leaning against the far wall, knees tucked up to his chest. Instead of speaking, Tony rests against the door frame and waits him out. Loki runs a hand through his already mussed hair.

“I just wanted my tablet.”

Loki trails after him down to the lab. He slumps on a stool, arms crossed protectively in front of him. If JARVIS had a body Tony is pretty sure he would be doing the same.

The first thing Tony does after watching Loki sit is walk briskly to the couch, pick up the tablet, and plop it down on the table in front of him. The other man reaches to it slowly, fingers brushing the edge, and then snaps out to grab it; holding it close to him as though he thinks Tony will change his mind.

The second thing Tony does is pause all but the most necessary of JARVIS’s functions so that he has the A.I.’s complete attention. It is a largely unnecessary action, but it's meant to prove a point. JARVIS isn't dumb, he knows what that means.

“Right, no more of this.” Still hugging the tablet gently to his chest, Loki glares at him. “Obviously there are some problems here, but you are not going to resort to petty squabbling. Either of you. What do you have to say for yourselves?”

“Your machine is unstable,” Loki grumbles. JARVIS doesn’t say anything.

“Don’t be childish, J. You’re allowed to talk now.”

“I have done nothing I regret.”

“I believe he requested that you stop being childish.”

“It was an objective statement of a fact. However, if you would like me to become subjective there are many other-”

“Okay- okay, relax kiddos.”

“They will lock me away eventually,” Loki glances at Tony. “I do not see how the timing makes any difference.”

“They will not-”

“In the interest of your safety, Sir-” JARVIS starts to interrupt; the Asgardian bristles and Tony keeps talking because what else is he supposed to do.

“-because I have an agreement with Odin. They aren’t allowed to.” The desk chair rolls slightly as Tony drops down onto it. “Can we be nice to each other for a few minutes? Dad has a headache.” Loki looks down at the tablet in his hands, stares at it very intently, then looks back at Tony from under his lashes. 

“You are not my father.”

“I know that, I know. It’s-” The desk chair leans back until he is just at risk of falling, and Tony takes a minute to close his eyes. “We’re going to have to talk about feelings, aren’t we?” He’s tired of talking, would really rather they not do this right now, but that isn’t a choice. “How does feelings-talk start? Can we stay not bitter for while? Because that would be fantastic. Should I get like a talking stick? Pass it around, take turns? That’s a thing, right?”

You brings him a socket wrench which isn’t even remotely a talking stick, but whatever, except Loki ignores that Tony is holding it and speaks anyway.

“Your A.I. overreacts and also hates me. I have very distinct memories from before of being locked in and out of places for no discernible reason.”

“Reasons for each instance have been recorded in the security log. He has also neglected to mention that all such occurrences were justified by the moment when he attempted physical harm on your person.”

“He has been deliberately making my life unnecessarily difficult since my initial arrival.”

“Mr. Odinson’s ability to form balanced and appropriate responses to negative stimuli is underwhelming.”

“I am not the one who resorted to unprovoked pettiness.” Locking eyes with Tony, Loki snarls. “Your machine is having delusions of grandeur. I’m sure if you asked nicely the dwarves would come and fix it.” Tony sighs. 

“This is obviously a failed experiment.”

“I have spoken with Misters Brokkr and Eitri and can assure you that they do not believe I need fixing.”

“They have been wrong in the past.”

“Oh my god, shut up.” Tony groans, burying his face in his arms, now crossed on the desk. “I will make you sit in the corner and hug each other!”

JARVIS is silent. Loki looks suitably horrified.

Then he appears to actually process what was said and, like a dam has burst, breaks into helpless uncontrollable laughter. He collapses sideways onto the table, shoulders shaking; his heels on the rungs of the stool the only thing keeping him from falling off of it.

“I’m serious; he’ll put on one of the suits.”

There’s a snort.

Tony ignores him until the laughing has stopped.

-

“So I’ve got to ask,” Stark says from across the room, buried in a new project that Loki doesn’t feel comfortable asking about. “I was used to seeing you around here a little more, why didn’t you come down?”

“I did, but was not allowed access. I am not a fool, nor do I require your pity. Now that everything is back as it once was I am no longer wanted here; I can take a hint.”

It takes a second, but Stark turns to him in confusion and then gives a hard look to one of the cameras Loki knows is there.  He doesn’t confront the issue.

-

Loki starts coming down to the lab more often. More often being relative to the never that it had been before. Once a week, or if he finds himself at the doors again (he knocks now, because the A.I. still won’t let him in unless prompted by his creator).

They do not always have good days but they are better, he thinks, than many he has had before. When he was alone. 

JARVIS still does not like him, which is fine because Loki does not like JARVIS either; however he does feel (a little) bad for the machines who have been caught in their crossfire. He is shadowed by one of them most times he visits; they rotate, but Loki believes Dummy is his most constant minder.
Though he can feel their eyes on him the machine does not reach out- and now that he is sure that is what was happening he can more easily identify the action- until his eighth visit. 

Again there is the feather-like brush against his senses, an almost touch like a hand floating just beyond the edge of his peripheral vision, and this time Loki reaches out with his mind to wrap around it. Dummy buzzes. Loki can feel the machine as though there is body heat leaching into the silence between them. They stand and do not speak for some time. The machine comes closer.

-Unit Designation Hallr threat to Creating Unit?

Loki looks again to Stark, standing by one of the suits with its panels open to view the circuitry, the other machines flank him. You turns to them as if he is listening.

There is a touch on his wrist causing Loki to turn back, eyes meeting with Dummy’s visual sensor.

No.

They are all still and moments later Stark straightens and faces him, perhaps alerted by the lack of noise that usually generates from the machines’ movements, eyes darting around at the occupants of the room. Loki tries to smile at him in a way that is not alarming, then he returns to the couch.

Dummy leaves the link open. It is like someone is sitting beside him.

It stays open even when Loki leaves the lab

-

The others take longer to speak to him, but while he waits Loki becomes accustomed to the input of sensory details that Dummy feeds him through the connection. Some are meaningless, process narrations that the machine might not even realize he is sending, and others with strict purpose in mind. Questions, status reports, and occasionally a pull (an attempt to be gentle from something without practice at delicacy). The overall feeling is akin to standing in a misting rain, present enough that you know it’s there, but a sensation that can fade from notice through continued exposure. 

When the thought occurs to Loki he wonders if this was how Thor had considered him through most of their (his) adolescence.

Something you know is there, but usually forget.

He shakes the thought away. A voiceless question brightens in the corner of his mind (a sign that the machine is focused on another project, else he would have used the articulation of thoughts he seemed to prefer) and Loki pushes calmness and assurances that he is fine in Dummy’s direction.

-

It is Dummy calling him Hallr that first causes it to drift through his thoughts.

Most of Loki’s active memories still draw from before; he can feel the drive at the edge of his senses that sometimes spurs him on against the all-seeing A.I, but they are mostly contained. Adjusting becomes easier when he takes the Other memories and surrounds them with the new ones he is creating. The lab is still a safe place, it is just different.

“I was someone else.” Stark’s response is garbled around the tool held in his mouth

“Hrmrhn?” 

“Before, when I was still- I was someone else. Do you think it is still there?”

“… it was mostly the blocker, I thought. I assumed everything was just absorbed into you. Don’t you remember what happened?”

“I do. But it still…”

Dummy had tried to bring him a smoothie earlier, Stark had taken it as he passed. After the machine droops Loki swings himself up to sit on the edge of the table. Now he reaches out and traps the machine’s claw in his hands, lifting it to eye level for study. It whirs in his loose grasp. Loki sighs and rests the claw back on his knees, petting the joint where it meets the arm and looking directly into the visual sensor attached to the robot.

“I’m sorry.”

“You say something?”

Stark walks over, wiping his hands on a filthy rag; Loki scoots away in as dignified a manner as he can so the rag won’t touch him when the inventor leans on the table.

“I killed it.”

“It?”  Stark seems remarkably unaffected by the words.

“The other one.”

“What? He was- no, he was you.”

“It was not a he Stark, there was not enough time for it to become a he.” Stark keeps staring at him, expression slowly shifting into something more akin to horror. “And it wasn’t me. Not really.” His nails catch on edges as he drags them over the arm’s surface. “I am sorry, I know you liked it.”

“Can we not-” Stark’s voice chokes off, he looks torn between reassurance and… sorrow. Like he knows it is true. “Can we not call him an it? Even if it’s true. Can we just-” He stops. Loki nods.

-

When J and Loki decide they need to snip at each other until Tony has to tell them to shut up again, which is frequently, he ‘distracts’ JARVIS by asking him to do complicated tasks (that all three of them know he could complete in sleep mode) and Loki by asking questions.

One such day Loki is slouched on the couch afterwards, slowly ripping a piece of paper to shreds. Tony can’t quite make out what the paper is, hopefully nothing important; he drops down beside the irate man to pester him.

“Tell me about it.” Frowning, Loki glances in his direction. “Asgard, what it was like growing up there. What growing up was like for you.”

Small pieces of paper keep dropping to the floor for a few more minutes, but when Loki runs out he crosses his arms, tucks his knees up closer to his chest, and begins to speak. He talks about the garden, about Eir and Odin, about Frigga. He talks about how he became a prince. He talks like he doesn’t think anyone will ask him this question ever again.

“Asgard is like a swamp. Fetid and rotting.” He reaches for another piece of paper. “Living things are in flux, they evolve, like your languages. Newness appears in the strangest places, but it is not wrong because it is new, because it is different. It is natural.”

“And Asgard isn’t.”

“No.”

Tony struggles with this new (old) Loki; it was not so much of a problem earlier, but now that Loki is regularly in the lab again it feels like his face is getting rubbed in it.  Occasionally he will look over and think it is his Loki before catching himself, or hours will pass and lull him into complacency before Loki does something that makes Tony remember and his chest ache.

The one saving grace is the genuine effort Loki appears to put into rebuilding his relationship with the bots, which makes Tony feel a little better. One of them is always trailing Loki when he is in the lab, usually Dummy, but (aside from JARVIS) they all seem to get on remarkably well with this Loki too.

The thing with JARVIS though, that is concerning. When he is cleaning up and Loki has excused himself to head back to his floor Tony puts a freeze on the doors and confronts his A.I.

“It was precautionary. He threw you out a window, Sir.  It is the same Loki now.”

“I know that J, Jesus.”

“I do not understand how you can be so unconcerned-”

“Of course I’m concerned. But what happens if we alienate him? It’s going to go down all over again, only worse because this time it will be a personal vendetta against us. Please,” he rests his hand on the wall. “Please, just stop provoking him.”

He asks Loki to do the same, in slightly different terms, the next time he’s down.

It’s better, kind of. He at least doesn’t have to tell them to shut up as often.

-

Back in his quarters Loki finds a book about overcoming emotional abuse on the counter by his sink, propped up by the glass he set out to dry the previous afternoon.

In the early morning, after he has finished reading, he wraps himself with spells and walks undetected through the tower, lingering where he knows there are cameras to test if the technology will see through his castings. 

It does not.

When Stark leaves the lab, Loki slips back in and stands quietly in the middle of the room, humming the wards he’s placed in the walls to life. 

-

Just over a month after his return their commander appears with an entourage and corners him coming out of the lab.  They are heavily armed, though it does not concern him; they would not act against the wishes of the King of Asgard (not yet). However Loki does not push his limits, he is tired of pushing.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Fury tells them. Loki sits, palms flat on the table and only looking at Fury because if he moves then every agent in the room might shoot him, and even if being shot would not kill him, it certainly would not be comfortable. “If you are staying on Earth, because thanks to Stark we don’t have a goddamn choice, you are going to be useful. But the second you look like you’re going to throw another tantrum we will sic the Hulk on you, I don’t care what Odin says.” The captain shifts where he is standing. Doctor Banner is to his left, but Loki does not turn to view his response to the declaration. “Just because you’re playing nice now doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for the deaths of hundreds. You are a war criminal and the second I can treat you as such without risking intergalactic war I will. So for now, if you’re good, and you’re helpful, and you stay that way, then maybe I will slow down plans to kill you.”

Loki nods, and then they leave.

Tony escorts him to a meeting place once. They have him look at some images, documents describing what they would refer to as supernatural events and what Loki would refer to as child’s play, an artifact (a square-shaped object with a blue orb in the center, it is not the most impressive item he has ever seen, but neither is it without interest. Loki is under the impression it is more of a test and so he says very little, only highly evasive statements that make the man with black and white hair sitting across from him smile). It does not last long.  As soon as they have the information they want he is herded back to the black car they came in and driven to the tower.

He is still searching for a purpose. This is not a path he had considered, but it is something. There is time yet.

-

“Fucking Hammer,” Stark snarls one day.

Loki looks up from the tablet sitting on the table in front of him.

“Who?”

As if suddenly realizing he’s spoken out loud, Stark glances to him and then clears whatever he was working on off of the screen. “Nothing, no one. Just a… a guy. Don’t worry about it.” He trails off and pulls up the specs of the new suit again. Something larger this time, with posture hunched over like a beast. 

If Loki had actually been reading he might have missed it, but he is not, so when he hears Stark grumbling he pets the robot next to him and excuses himself from the room.

In his quarters he is lying down on the couch, paging through online articles concerning Hammer Tech and its namesake on the tablet. He lofts a wordless question in Dummy’s direction and very quickly gets a response in the form of an impression of overwhelming badness that sinks in and won’t let go.

Loki hums under his breath and sits up.

The next morning Justin Hammer is found unconscious and tied to the hood of a S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle. When they get the call Loki is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, listening as JARVIS relays the audio through the tower speakers. 

Out of the corner of his eye he sees the captain watching him. Loki goes back to his quarters.

-

The hacked network provides a constant stream of data on the head of Hammer Industries and his containment in one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s holding cells, possibly more restricted than is required. Dark and underground, isolated. Forgotten.

There is at one point an attempt to relocate him to a more comfortable area of the locked down facility; the paperwork and evidence thereof is easily disposed.

The man is not moved.

Captain Rogers accesses the video log of Loki’s movements from the night before. What he finds are images of the man sitting quietly in his allocated quarters with a tablet, the glow from the screen lighting up his face. What he finds are websites and articles the man had browsed through at other times, complied in a history that is labeled with yesterday’s date.

What he does not find is the video log of Loki casting by the window; it is tucked away under firewalls, the time clock changing on the earlier footage so that it appears to run all night.

The captain does not request anything beyond these. Neither does he ask about the man’s activities. And if he does not ask, JARVIS is not required to tell him.

Justin Hammer is not released.

-

When they get back from Midgard Eitri drops into a chair, too tired for the forge, and runs a hand down his face.

“There is something wrong,” he looks at his brother. “I did not notice it before because we were tucking everything away, but it is as though he is covered in webbing.”

“What does it do?”

“I do not know. It glitters as if it is meant to be there. There are no obvious changes.”

Brokkr stares at the wall, thinking, and then looks back to his brother tersely. “We will have to take it off then.”

They begin to plan. It is in the crevices, it will not be easy.

-

Since the incident with the arrow in the common room, Loki has gone out of his way to avoid all Avengers who were not Stark (the only one he is reasonably assured will not cause him harm at this time) as much as it is feasible to do so. Fortunately the wall map of the other one’s time in his body has also allowed him to pinpoint their routines, so it is not terribly difficult.

Stark would be the easiest if he was avoiding him, next Banner who he has only seen during the Doctor’s visits to the lab when Loki’s presence was not expected. Their interactions have been brief and calm once they both got past the initial spike of anxiety, which was reassuring but still unpredictable and so best avoided.

He has no questions about what the Hawk and Widow’s reactions could be; that they have not acted yet is a pleasant surprise, especially given that the archer perhaps spends more time with him than any of his team mates. Each time Loki feels eyes on him both in and outside of the lab or glances to the ceiling he wonders how often the other Avengers see the agent now. Even when he sits in his quarters with the tablet the eyes are there.  It is not everywhere, but he is followed.

As for their captain…

The captain stops him on his way out of the lab (really, he should just teleport at this point), calling his name from his seat on the far couch. None of the other Avengers are- (he stops to reach out)- no, the Hawk is listening from above, but the others are not present.

For a moment Loki is thrown. In his mind are cataloged interactions and probable responses for each of the Avengers, data collected over battles and the period of time he was not himself. It is how he lives his life now, the only guidelines he has.

Across the room Captain Rogers does not look at him as if he is the Other One, nor as he was before It. Loki cannot tell what the captain sees; it is unquantifiable, and therefore impossible to decipher how he should respond.

Rogers leans forward, elbows resting against his knees. 

“How are you feeling?”

The question is vague and purposeless. Feeling about what? Thor? The tower? The complete betrayal he is trying to wade through? Loki shifts, worrying the hem of his shirt with the hand the Midgardian cannot see. “… satisfactory.”

The captain frowns. “What does that mean?”

Loki shrugs and scuttles out of the room as gracefully as he can. Rogers does not follow.

-

His quarters are usually quiet, Loki has very few visitors. There is the hum of the air circulating, the nearly imperceptible sound that leaks from the devices around him as electricity passes through, his own footsteps, all sounds that are part of Being in the tower. 

The Avengers are gone which he knows not because he was told, but because the Hawk had left the vents above him at the same time the robots in the lab had informed him of Stark’s departure. Loki had briefly considered finding and turning on one of the screens on a floor he has access to, but dismissed the thought. It was only curiosity, and it would not do for the A.I. to inform the Midgardians that Loki had appeared to be concerned.

It can wait. Stark will most likely tell him about it later, he will not even have to ask. 

He is not concerned until he realizes everything is silent. 

Sitting up slowly, he reaches downs several floors to Dummy. Right before the connection disappears, he feels a pull sharp enough to make him wince. Then the aloneness is back.    

Loki drops the tablet.

Dummy?

There is nothing, not even a whispered impression. Immediately Loki flings his consciousness into the walls and around the building. The circuits tremble briefly when he touches them with his mind, reaching out to the wires in the labs, running over them, over everything, searching.  All is quiet and dark, buzzing in the wrong way (no no noNONO) until he finds a spark. It glows like the embers of a dying flame, reaching back to him as he tries nursing it to brightness.

A panel in his quarters lights up.  JARVIS crackles.

“-ir is- can’t ac- - hy- i--tra-ng the t-”

“JARVIS, are you- what is going on?! JARVIS?”

Static claws out of the speakers, bits of noise that are indiscernible while still clearly being the A.I.’s voice. Then there is nothing, the lights flickering once.

Loki runs.

-

They are in the middle of a fight, made more complicated by their lack of Thor but not unmanageable, when the HUD flickers and JARVIS cries out for him in a panicky voice. Tony’s breath jerks out of him, disoriented by the absence of input, then the propulsion system is gone and the last thing he hears as he starts to fall, his stomach jumping up to his throat, is the broken up static sound of JARVIS initiating the Homebound protocol. Suddenly, blind in all ways except for the narrow visor of the face plate, Tony is shooting in the direction of the tower.

“JARVIS?!” he calls, voice breaking. “J?!”

There is nothing.

The suit is on auto-pilot, moving only toward the beacon signaling from the landing pad; his com is out, lost with the connection he doesn’t have any more to his A.I. Tony tries to move his hands, feet, anything. He can’t.

He’s not claustrophobic, to get in the suit he can’t be, but when he’s locked in place and can’t see and there is no response from the only one who is always always always with him then he thinks he knows what it might feel like. He’s shaking, adrenaline and fear racing through his body. 

Halfway there, when Tony is beginning to panic about what he is going to find when he arrives because he Doesn’t Know What Happened, everything kicks back on. “Iron Man! Iron Man, report!” He can hear (Cap, desperate) for a second before a smooth voice cuts in, the input lights back up around him.

“My apologies, Sir.” Tony tries to ignore how wet his eyes feel and the sound of his own ragged breathing. “A team infiltrated the tower and brought a disruptor strong enough to affect my core for a moment. The threat has been neutralized.”

“The fuck-?! You sure? You okay buddy?”

“I am…” JARVIS trails off.

“Do you need me there?”

“We are alright Sir, but-” another stop.

“Answer the question J. Do not lie to me.” 

“Yes. I think I do.”

He swings back to pick up Cap (only because the, “Tony? What happened?! Are you alright?” in his ear hasn’t stopped).  The battle is over by the time he arrives, so he leaves the others to shuttle back to headquarters and debrief.  The next time he is commissioned to build a satellite, Tony adds a feature allowing JARVIS to upload and relay himself if needed. He’s not sure why he hasn’t done this before.

Upon their return, he and Steve find Loki standing with bodies strewn about him, goons in Hydra uniforms that shouldn’t have been able to get as far in the tower as they did. When he notices them his knives disappear into air and, as if nothing has happened, turns in greeting.

Tony is concerned.

Steve looks at him meaningfully.

“We should probably add this to the list.”

Clean up is done, somehow (magic), before Hawkeye and Black Widow return. Loki leans against the wall next to Tony when he is running diagnostics and backups on all of JARVIS’s systems; both the Asgardian and A.I. are compliant, doing what they are told with little commentary. Neither snips at the other once.

They Do Not tell Fury, but an hour later Tony is standing on the roof of the tower talking to himself and gods that he isn’t sure are listening.

Three days later the dwarves come.

-

Loki is in his quarters when they arrive.

“Eitri!” He calls in surprise, reaching out before he realizes he’s moved. He corrects himself. The dwarf ignores it and embraces him anyway.

“Hello child.” Loki frowns, but says nothing; there are few from whom he will accept that endearment (he thinks it’s meant as an endearment, is not sure how to ask without sounding hopeless and pathetic); his maker is one of them. “How do you fare?”

Just next to the entryway Brokkr stands with the Captain and Stark who had followed him in. Frown deepening as he sees them Loki glances back toward Eitri, suddenly considering why he might have come.

“I am… satisfactory.”

Brokkr rolls his eyes.

“You fret. Stop.” Behind the dwarf Stark snorts, but is ignored. “My brother and I have merely been concerned with an anomaly that was noticed during our last visit. We wish to investigate its cause.”

“Oh.” Anomaly? Looking down, Loki finds that his hands have risen up as if in the middle of a gesture that he does not remember beginning. He changes it to a sweeping motion in the direction of the couches, hoping the awkwardness would go unnoticed, though he is fairly certain it has been. They seem content to let him pretend. “Sit. Please?”

Eitri places a hand on his arm, guiding but not forcing him in the direction of the furniture.

“What do you remember after your… fall?” he asks once they are both seated. His brother remains standing by the arm of the chair. “Did you encounter anyone?” The Midgardians hang back, clearly unsure of their continued welcome but using the lack of dismissal as tacit permission to remain.

It does not matter, they would watch through the feed anyway.

“I remember…” his thoughts trail off and for a second he remembers nothing, until he remembers Nothing and shivers. “There was one I met, who provided me with an army,” he says at last. In his peripheral vision the Avengers shift. “But I do not think he- he didn’t…” his thoughts dwindle, until there is only blankness.

Loki flinches.

He stops speaking.

Eventually Eitri lifts his fingers but moves no further, looking at Loki very seriously. “Would you mind?”

When Loki breathes out and closes his eyes the dwarf rests a hand on the back of his neck and he can feel the dull ache behind his eyes that he associates with someone looking at the spells that Make Him. All he can think is quiet and breathe until the hand is lifted; Eitri glances to his brother and makes an affirmative gesture.

“There is a latticework laid over you,” Brokkr says, still in his place by the chair’s arm. “All thoughts and decisions have been passing through its frame. While we are not yet certain of the exact purpose, it is not meant to be there. Perhaps this One that you speak of is the cause.” 

“If you tell me everything he did during the invasion wasn’t his fault I might throw something at you.” Stark’s voice rings from the entryway, Brokkr does not look over.

“No. It is passive.”

Loki draws back into himself; he hears the Captain speak but cannot really see anything. 

“Like a lens filter on a camera?”

Neither dwarf responds, Stark makes the faint noise he does when he’s had an epiphany.

“We must remove it. All will be well,” his maker runs a hand through his hair; Loki is mildly annoyed at the childish comfort he gets from the motion. “Just like the incident on your Nameday, after you were attacked. When you open your eyes it will be over, there will be no changes made to you.” 

The words are earnest; Loki says nothing and only returns the dwarf’s gaze, brow furrowed. He has vague memories of Father and the dwarf speaking above him, but everything else is gray, all he knows is their voices.

Finally he offers a small smile; Eitri pets his hair again and waves a hand in front of his face.

The world goes dark.

-

Loki wakes up, blinks several times, and announces that he feels no different. Eitri circles around him like an overbearing mother until Brokkr (who had been sharing a drink with Tony at the bar) shoves him away.

“You should notice in time. If anything of concern occurs you will contact us, until then we will monitor to ensure there have been no lasting effects.”

They stay for a meal, Loki sitting next to Eitri and sipping from a glass of water as the dwarf eats, and then they return to their realm with promises to visit again.

He does not feel any different at all until the next day when he is escorted to look over materials for S.H.I.E.L.D. and an agent he does not know makes a derisive noise as he passes. His response to a similar action last week had been the near overpowering desire to smite the mortal, possibly with flames; this time Loki lets out heavy breath and pushes the irritation aside.

Then everything clicks into place and he freezes.

Oh.

Afterwards he sits on his couch in the lab until Stark comes back down. Hands moving in a slow wringing motion, he tells the Avenger what happened. Tony hums, sits down next to him, and asks if he wants to watch a movie. 

“If you plan to patronize me with any more of your trite little stories then I will not be held responsible for my actions.” 

“What? No.” Tony grins at him. 

Then he puts on Wall-e. 

After Loki almost breaks the closest computer system they change it to Shawshank Redemption, which is better. Marginally. 

Chapter Text

When they tell the others, and by ‘they’ Steve means himself because Tony disappears at the last minute, the response is calmer than he expects. He waits 24 hours to do it; fairly certain by this point the rest of the team will have already figured out some measure of what happened on their own. It is also conveniently at a time where Steve knows Loki is both no longer at a S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but is still in transit to the tower. This is not something he wants the Asgardian to walk in on, even if whatever made him inclined towards violence is no longer a factor. Loki was still raised in a warrior culture and if the result is anything like Natasha (the closest person Steve knows that could be considered an equivalent) then just removing the inclination will not make him any less dangerous.

Once everyone but Iron Man has arrived in the sitting area of Steve’s quarters, another precaution just in case the journey back to the tower takes less time than he anticipates, Steve finds himself at a loss for words. He stands in front of them without speaking for a few seconds before the metaphor of the camera falls out of his lips without thinking.

“It’s still the same subject, but a filter changes subtleties in how it's seen and sometimes the approach of the person taking it.”

“And what precisely was it filtering?” Doctor Banner rubs the bridge of his nose.

“It sounded like it made him more volatile. The filter was how I wrapped my mind around it, but they also said the word lattice. Which is woven, I think. Like a net. Maybe it blocks too.”

“Blocks his sanity?”

“Yes, well… they might still be trying to work that out. If they do understand it then they weren’t exactly talkative. Maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. should look into a meeting with them.”

Natasha flicks her phone out of her pocket.

“If they weren’t forthcoming with you or Stark then the odds are low they’ll be any more so with S.H.I.E.L.D. officials.” The phone disappears again, she addresses Clint without looking at him. “We could have you ask them. Try to implant some sort of guilt and responsibility for Loki’s actions.”

Clint is leaning back into the couch, legs crossed and head tipped back. His posture is loose, but his eyes are knives hanging over Steve’s head. He does not speak; Natasha seems to take the role for him. He also does not look surprised by anything they are saying.

“But he was still making the decisions. It didn’t change his thoughts or beliefs,” Natasha continues, now speaking to Steve for confirmation. “Didn’t make him follow or believe someone else’s agenda. Everything Loki did was a result of what he chose to do.”

“That is how they explained it, yes.”

She rises from her seat as if she is floating, next to her Clint doesn’t so much as shift.

“I’ll report to Fury. He should have been told about the dwarves the minute they came back.” She’s looking intently at Steve when she says it, he doesn’t respond because he knows it’s true. “He’ll want to see the security footage. JARVIS?” 

“I will have it prepared and upload it to your mobile momentarily,” the A.I. responds.

She walks out. Bruce is the next to leave, heading to the kitchen to finish dinner, leaving Steve and Clint alone in the room.  Neither of them speaks and eventually Steve moves to sit on the table in front of the other man, not wanting to tower over the agent for this conversation.

“Clint?” He asks a moment later, not getting any response. “Agent Barton?” Still nothing. “Agent,” he says softly. “Status report.” 

Clint glares at him. At least it’s something.

“You don’t seem surprised.”

“No.”

“Can I ask why?”

“That’s how it always is. A convenient reason that it isn’t their fault.”

“Clint, the point is that it was his responsibility. It wasn’t the same as what he did to you, no one forced him to do what he did.”

“They’ll use it to keep him free.”

“Maybe.” Steve shrugs. “I’d be a little surprised if they didn’t try, actually. But he does seem less… pointy than he did when I first met him.” Not less angry though, Steve can still see the threads of it in him. And the exhaustion (which is what he’s banking on).

“He’s tired.” Clint repeats the sentiment that Steve didn’t voice out loud, eyes drifting to the side again. It isn’t worth trying to draw them back as long as he keeps responding.

“Are you?”

Clint grumbles out, “I’m tired of this conversation,” and then proceeds to ignore him for five minutes; Steve doesn’t let his eyes leave the slumped man. When Barton speaks again it is clear that he’s talking because he knows it’s expected of him and not because he needs an answer. “How does his bond with Thor work into it?”

“I don’t know that yet.” Barton is still looking over Steve’s shoulder, like he is seeing something else in his mind. “Do you?” That startles a look back.

“What?”

“Do you know? How the bond works in.”

Clint shrugs. Steve lets it go, for the moment.

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Dunno. Early morning? What day is it?”

“Tuesday.”

A steady rhythm taps out on the end table where Clint is bracing himself against the armrest, finger the only part of him that moves. “I ate on Friday.”

“Clint-”

“Was busy.”

“You’re lucky we didn’t get called in. Come on,” Standing, Steve reaches a hand out to the agent who eyes it with distrust. It is a little… upsetting. “You are going to eat, then sleep. I will wake you up if it’s necessary.”

Clint doesn’t take his offer to help him up, but he does stand and follow Steve into the kitchen. He even eats some of the curry Bruce sets in front of him, so it’s better than it was before. The first thing he needs to do once he sees Clint settled, Steve decides, is find Stark and figure out exactly what steps they are going to take moving forward.

After dinner when Steve goes looking for him, Tony is gone. 

And so is Loki.

-

They leave without packing.

“A text,” Stark says, flashing his phone screen at Loki for a fraction of a second before shoving it back into his pocket. He’s leaning casually against a wall in the garage when the S.H.I.E.L.D. van pulls up, then grabs Loki’s sleeve and manhandes him into a new car once the van is gone. The driver turns back to them and smiles; Loki has no idea who he is.

“I have been summoned to Malibu. Business things, boring.” The car speeds down the highway which is thankfully not crowded. The Midgardian pays it no mind; Loki looks out the window at the numbers that pass. “But Pepper called and needs must be- Hey, you don’t care that I’m bringing you, do you? Good. Didn’t think you’d want to be alone in the tower again. Didn’t work out so well the last time. -something about meetings and I wouldn’t usually care, but Pepper and convenient timing and junk. Thoughts?” Loki blinks at him. The show Stark has been projecting drops to dead seriousness. “Loki,” for a second he thinks the man will reach out and touch him, but he doesn’t. “I’m taking you to Malibu, I’m trusting you with this, God help me. Please don’t make me regret it.”

Nothing comes out of Loki’s mouth, dead air he can’t turn into words that finally creaks out in an “alright” like his throat is a desert. 

Tony nods.

He’s escorted to a private jet, casting a perception filter causing those they pass not to recognize him, and they are in the air. Loki looks curiously out the windows.

“How does this fly?”

Stark smiles and then talks.

-

Though he has not seen Pepper since before he returned he can still recall a fondness for her, the thought of her being like Eir in that her first impression of him seemed to be that he was a small child that needed taking care of, even though she knows he tried to kill Tony once.

It concerns him what her response to his return will be. Though he no longer wants to… smite Midgardians… it has clearly not been enough to reassure most of those he is in contact with (such as Colonel Rhodes who, having just arrived at the tower twenty six minutes after they had departed, expressed his displeasure thoroughly over the phone during the flight). Loki has so few allies at this stage that the idea of losing one he may have had, even though he had not even been himself and especially because she reminded him so of a quiet shining light in his childhood, is disconcerting.

If he is to stay here, on Midgard with this peculiar mortal who he has almost convinced himself to like, her support is required. He will not last if she is not standing on his side.

What becomes apparent to him by the expression on her face as he exits the jet is that she had not expected his presence. She is upset, which displeases him, so he defers to Stark and remains unobtrusive as much as he can. Perhaps later she will still speak to him.

-

She has a panic attack in the ladies room.

A rapid shaking claustrophobia where the walls closed in and she couldn’t get any air, mouth dry like sand, curled in on herself and blocking the door until she no longer feels like she (or Tony) is about to die.

Pepper smooths her hair out, fixes her makeup, and then takes Loki to lunch while Tony works.

They go to Nobu, calling ahead to secure the full deck for privacy. The waiters who bring plate after intricate plate of fresh sea food do not seem to notice who Loki is nor that he isn’t eating, which is both comforting and disturbing all at once.

Loki is calm and quiet, nearly fading from her attention as if by magic. She hopes he is just as out of sorts as she is. Anxiety claws at her stomach so she focuses instead on the waves splashing up on the shore. It is usually enough for her to nod off, or forget any worries she might have, but then she is finished eating and can put it off no longer. Fear has never stopped her from doing what she needs to do.

There is not a delicate way to ask.

“Are you the same person who attacked New York?”

Loki freezes. There is a lie in his eyes; she braces herself for it.

“I’m-” he stops, looks to the side. “No, I’m- it’s not… not precisely? I’m not like that any-” he stops again. She watches him close his eyes and breath as if he is counting to ten in his mind, the same tactic she uses when Tony is being particularly frustrating. When he opens his eyes he avoids hers. “Yes.”

For some unworldly reason the admission causes part of the tension to run out of her. “What did you mean by ‘not precisely’?”

“I am also it- him, from before. He is… in me, I think.”

His hands shift and he looks down in a way that with anyone else she would identify as insecurity. That with him a few weeks ago she would have thought the same.

She doesn’t know what it means now.

Please, she thinks. Please be real.

“You act like him sometimes.” Loki laughs and she is firmly reminded that he is not Tony’s Loki. “Is that unusual?”

“Yes,” he frowns. “I think so.” The water in his glass whirls as he spins it, clearly not at ease and searching for ways to distance himself from the conversation. She feels the same way. “You make me uncomfortable.”

“Why?” He does not respond, only sits there examining the empty air between them and the planes of the glass in his hand. “I need you to be honest with me for a few minutes. Can you do that?” Loki does not look at her, but he nods. “Have you talked to Tony yet?”

“Yes.”

“Have you Talked to him.”

“… there is a specific topic you have in mind?” She raises an eyebrow. “No, I have not.”

“Thor told you to stop, didn’t he? To come home with him. When you were here with the Chituari.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t, obviously.” He echoes her on the last word, but makes no other move to clarify. “Tony explained the binding to me when he was waiting for you to wake up. That you follow Thor’s orders, or followed them I should say. Except,” she twirls the straw in her iced tea, “for all the times that you didn’t.” Loki looks at the main building of the restaurant, focusing on the way the light plays across the windows next to them. “So, how does that work?”

“There is a difference,” he starts, still looking at the window. “Between what he wants or demands and what he Needs.” He finally looks back to her. “You are familiar with the reasons I was made?”

“I think so, maybe. But it’s all been second or third hand.”

“When I was new, my only purpose was to support Thor and help him grow into a successful King; which I have failed at, naturally, because everything I try to do results in failure.” Pepper bites back a reassuring noise. “Regardless, that was at least the intention. Everything about me developed around him, to… balance him out. To provide what he did not have himself.” Pepper can hear the frustration edging up in Loki’s voice and leans back into her chair out of instinct, like that would actually protect her if he tried something, and then feels stupid. She reaches out for her drink and attempts to relax; Loki continues as if she had not reacted at all, but his eyes skip away from her to the waves. “As Thor grew, he became arrogant. It comes and goes now; he has gotten… a little better, perhaps. But he is still not ready. Not equipped to handle the throne and all it entails. And it felt like I was the only one who saw this. Midgard,” he stops, taps the table heavily, and starts again. “Midgard was good for Thor. He learned things here that I was never able to impart to him, because he does not listen when it comes from me. He was improving, and he… liked it here, but he could not stay, not without reason. He asked me to stop, he demanded it, and he meant it on some level, of course he did because while Thor is arrogant and foolish he will protect those who need it. But in order to stay here, with his shield brothers, with… this Jane, he knew he needed a reason. In that part of him that acknowledged this, he also knew that he would always be able to provide this protection, because he would always defeat me.”

“Because,” Pepper looks at him carefully, feeling out his reaction. “You would never let him lose.”

Loki gives her a wry smile.

“He needed to be on Midgard, Ms. Potts. I arranged things.” He lets out a gust of air. “And so he meant and didn’t mean these orders all at once, and I was able to look past his demands because of this. Because of what he needed to become worthy.” They sit in silence, Pepper placing her glass back on the table as their waiter comes out to check on them. She smiles at the man, waves off the offer of a fresh tea, and they are once again left alone. It is some time before Loki continues. “I did not anticipate him tiring of the arrangement… at least… not in this way.”

“What did you think would happen?”

“That he would kill me. Eventually. Once I had convinced everyone there was nothing worth saving. That he would struggle with the decision and weigh the odds and realize that to be a true leader one must make sacrifices for the greater good. That he would strike me down, and mourn, and allow Midgard to help rebuild him, and then he would become worthy. But of course that is not what happened, and I have made it worse.”

The empty air between them is painful in its silence.

“Why are you telling me all of this?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” and then sighs and shakes his head. “Yes, I-” He buries his face in his hands then runs them both back over his face, into his hair to grip tightly for a moment and if to ground himself, and then rests them back on the table. “You told me once that I was- you told him that he was more than a thing for people to use. That he was worth- and I… I think he was, I do, but I don’t know… I don’t know if I am.” He finally stops. She reaches out to take his hand and they stay like that.

“This isn’t a good idea.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think he trusts you, not really. Not yet. I don’t trust you.” Loki nods, eyes fixed on her hand still covering his. “But he still wants to keep you… Don’t hurt him- them, any of them. Please.”

“I won’t,” he says, she doesn’t respond. “It’s not something I- I… have a list." His breath is almost soft laughter. "Of things, that I shouldn’t do. Tony made it.”

She sighs, lips quirking up without her permission. “Of course he did.”

-

“So, what do you think of California?”

Across the room Tony is pouring an amber liquid into his glass, probably alcohol. Loki turns to cross his arms along the back of the couch so he can watch him. What an odd question.

“It is sufficient, what I have seen of it at least. Which is mostly the house.”

“No gushing about the countryside?”

“… it is green?” Loki shifts again and leans back into the cushions, Tony laughs. “Will Ms. Potts be returning?”

There is noise at the bar, Tony fussing with glassware, shuffling and reshuffling them into different patterns. “No, I don’t think so,” he says, not looking up. “Needs some space, I dropped a bomb on her today… not literally, but, you know… can’t just show up with ex-genocidal alien invader and expect her to be fine with it just because it’s over… That’s over now, right?”

“I was never genocidal…”

“That is over now. Right?”

“I have no particular desire to subjugate your species, no.”

“Lovely.” The clinking finally stops, he takes the moment to look at the Midgardian again, a heavy feeling starting to build in his gut.

“When you say she will not be returning… you mean tonight.” Tony doesn’t look at him. “During this visit?”

“I don’t know.”

“I…” there is really nothing to say. “I should go back to the tower.”

“No, it’s fine-”

“She is not comfortable because I am here, if I leave she will-”

“How do you feel at the tower, Loki?”

The non-sequitur throws him.

“… what?” He rather misses his ability to articulate thoughts, doesn’t think he’s been able to do it properly since his fall. “It is fine?”

“At the tower, Loki. At.” It is lucky that Tony ignores any potential response and keeps talking, because Loki has no intention of answering his question. Stark is not an idiot, he already knows how Loki felt. “Because I don’t know about you, but I for one am feeling a little stifled. And uncomfortable, which makes me worried about my babies, so I’m going to have them picked up and brought home. Except JARVIS, he can multi-task if he wants to. He’s a big boy. Besides, I need the space. I have a couple projects I want to work on.” The talking stops for a moment, Tony falling silent looking down at his untouched drink. He finally walks around the length of the bar and, after only a second or two of hesitation, sits down on the couch next to Loki who remains quiet, watching the mortal with the smallest bit of awe growing in his chest. “… do you want to move here?” He swallows. “A fresh start and all. Everything at the tower will still be there if you change your mind, I’ll put it on lock down so you’ll still have it, no one else will be able to get to it. I’m not taking anything away from you, just… no memories here. Not yet. You can make good ones from the beginning. We can go back after business is over, pack up whatever you want and make our excuses.” Tony stops and looks at Loki for a second like he expects to be shot down, voice hesitant. And vulnerable. “What do you think?"

-

Loki lies on the floor of his room (his new one, still empty and waiting for his belongings across the country to be packed up and moved in) staring up at the empty expanse of the ceiling above him. His mind is quiet for the first time in ages.

He smiles.

They stay in California for three weeks.

Chapter Text

“And by the first of the month plans for the new edition will have to be shipped to manufacturers. Can we not wait until the night before to start creating them this time?”

“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.”

“I think that’s about all then, I’ll push the paperwork through and whatever is left can hold until you fly back out next week.”

Tony picks at the edge of the couch, watching his beautiful and amazing CEO flip through notes on her tablet before putting it back in her bag and standing up. She tucks a few strands of hair behind her ear (he wants to do that), slender fingers hanging by her jaw for a moment before she lets her arm drop.

“Pepper,” he finally asks when she is at the door. “Are we okay?”

She stands there looking at him and he can’t breathe until she answers.

“We will be Tony.”

“I love you Pep.”

It feels a little like guilting her after he says it and he wishes he could take it back because she is frozen in the doorway like it hurt her. That’s not what he meant to do, but of course he’s messing this up, and he loves her so so much even though she hasn’t said anything in return yet and the pause burns him. Pepper sighs and walks back over, pressing a kiss to his forehead. Her hands are soft and warm against the skin of his cheeks; she runs a thumb gently under his eye.

“I love you too.”

-

Rhodes spends an hour on the phone with Pepper once they find out Tony is gone. Steve’s not sure what she says to him, but when they’re done he goes down to the lab for the rest of the afternoon and three days later leaves the tower, returning to duty.

Before he goes, there is an attack in Seattle; War Machine joins them. There is a learning curve for everyone involved in terms of teamwork, but they make it through. It is a battle that leaves them all aching and tired, nursing bruises, though not bad enough that Iron Man’s absence hurt them. 

They get a break after that.

Life begins to return to an almost normal pace, minus Tony. Despite the relative peace of the tower Steve still worries, because he always worries, about his missing teammate. He peppers JARVIS with questions frequently, somehow expecting new information even though all of the A.I.’s answers have boiled down to, “Sir is away on business and will return when matters have been concluded,” and, “Both Sir and his guest are well and acting within reasonable parameters. There is no cause for worry.” Which doesn’t stop him from doing so, at all, but Steve does feel a bit better because JARVIS’s definition of being “well” when discussing Tony Stark is very comprehensive. Even if the A.I. is not entirely truthful about Loki, should anything happen to the man he serves Steve has no doubts at all that SOME ONE would be informed. 

Loki’s absence calms Clint down some. He spends more time out of the vents and talks to them, beginning to branch out. What he does not do is respond well to being told Loki had disappeared. Though he clearly does not want to be in the same vicinity as the man who invaded his mind, not knowing where he went is worse. The first 48 hours had been a battle in making sure he didn’t take off in pursuit, a battle they only won (if it could be called winning) because Natasha and JARVIS were involved.  When Clint attempted to make a break for it, doors, windows, and vents would automatically lock or close off, essentially herding him around in circles through the tower until he relented, which in any other situation might have been funny. Clint stops after two days because Natasha promised to ‘take care of things,’ whatever that meant. The sole reason Steve doesn’t press too heavily for answers is because after informing Steve, “that Sir and his guest are still well,” JARVIS agrees to make sure he knows if anything notable should occur.  

Which apparently does not include Tony Stark’s return to New York.

They are back for two days before anyone notices. Any other time JARVIS would have announced an arrival to the tower, or Tony would inadvertently announce himself by being… well, himself, but for whatever reason Steve wakes up one morning to boxes stacked in the middle of the common room that weren’t there the evening before.

“JARVIS?” He turns around, alert in an instant and scanning his surroundings.

“All is well, Captain Rogers. Sir is merely accumulating possessions he does not believe he can leave behind.”

“Behi- wait, Tony’s back? When did that happen? Is he downstairs?” Immediately Steve begins to weave around the packed items in the direction of the half stair leading down to the lab. “Why didn’t you tell-”

“Oh.” The voice from behind freezes him in his tracks, Steve whirls around; Tony stands in the doorway by the kitchen, he tips slightly into the frame like he had stopped mid-step. “Hi Steve.”

“Is that all?” This is unbelievable. “You disappear on us for three weeks and that’s all. ‘Hi Steve.’”

Momentarily lost, Tony looks down at the bowl in his hands. “I was taking a break to eat breakfast?”

Behind Tony are glimpses of another form that moves around what Steve knows by the angle is the refrigerator. There is too much in the way for Steve to see who it is, but the voice that comes next is easily recognizable.

“Ice cream is hardly breakfast, Stark.”

“If I am eating it at breakfast time then it’s breakfast.”

“Loki?” Steve pushes past Tony, forcing himself into the kitchen. Loki glances over at him, closing the bottle of lemon juice and placing back in the fridge. He picks up the spoon and glass sitting close by on the counter and begins to stir, turning the clear water inside slightly cloudy. 

“We’ve expanded to flavored water.” Tony grins up at Steve. He shovels a large spoonful of ice-cream into his mouth, still leaning back against the frame of the door. “I don’t have any idea why we didn’t think of this before, regular water is so boring, but whatever. No adverse effects so far. We also may have bonded.” Loki lifts his glass in salute. “With no bloodshed even. Well, minimal bloodshed. But it was a workshop thing. And an accident. I ran into a wall, long story-” 

“It’s not really. He was being childish and JARVIS shut the door on him. I don’t even think that’s the first time it’s happened.” 

Tony’s shoulders sag in an exaggerated fashion, giving Loki a look clearly meant to be a scowl but also clearly not serious. Loki almost smiles back.

“Thanks for that.”

“No problem.” 

Steve looks back and forth between the two, words lost.

After a moment Tony turns back to him, stilling at his expression. He lets out a deep breath and then, without looking away from Steve’s face, addresses Loki once more. “Will you do me a favor and head to the lab? The sooner we have everything together the sooner we can ship it. JARVIS, do you have the list of what we need out of there?”

“I do, Sir.”

“Good, the two of you can get started then.” Loki hesitates by the door until Tony walks up and gently hip checks him. “Have the bots help. It will distract them from the move, they hate flying.” Steve waits until the door shuts and the Asgardian is gone before speaking.

“The move?”

“Yeah, I’m going to- sit down first. Hold on.” Tony pulls a chair out and drops down into it, letting go of a gust of air and rubbing his shoulder. His mostly forgotten ice cream left on the counter half eaten. Once he’s settled he kicks the chair across from him out, an invitation to sit. Steve paces. “I’m moving back out to Malibu.” As if suddenly realizing he’s still holding the spoon, Tony starts tapping it against the table. A cadence of four. “I thought I’d take Loki with me.”

“Is that a good idea?”

“Maybe,” there is no beating around the bush this time, no jokes about how his ideas are always good. “Maybe not, I don’t know.” The drumming of the spoon stops, he tosses it across the table. Both of them watching quietly as it slides off and clatters to the floor. “I just need- I… space. I need to get out of New York. And I think he does too. Not for good, but… for a while.”

“Tony, if I can do anything-”

“You’ve done enough.” Steve winces, going to stand by the sink with his back to the other man in order to help cover it. “No, Steve- I didn’t mean-”

“Yes you did, and I get it. It’s fine.” The sink is dirty, Steve should polish it. He gets a rag and cleaner out from the cupboard.  

“What are you doing?”

“Washing up.” There’s a bit of dried something on the edge that doesn’t want to come off. It chips away under his fingernail and then he looks around for something else. The ice cream in Tony’s bowl is mostly melted now. “Are you done with this?” He gestures, Tony nods so Steve grabs it and cleans that too. “After the invasion… I was worried for those first few months. About you.”

“Really?”

“Well, after I decided you were a good man at least… It took a while.” The attempt at a joke is feeble, but Tony kind of grins at him. “You seemed okay though.” The grin falters. “Were you okay?”

“No.” They exist in companionable silence; Steve finally takes a seat on the chair Tony had pushed out, the table a wall between them. Tony looks up from his hands, clasped loosely in his lap, and raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Do you think it’s good for him here?”

“Loki?… no.” He shakes his head. “No, I really don’t. Maybe before, but not now. And not for Clint either, this is… good. Probably. That he’s going with you. For both of them.” Steve leans forward, elbows resting on the table. Tony mirrors his posture. “Do you have plans for if it goes wrong?”

“Yeah. We’ll talk, later. I’ll tell you.”

“When?”

A glance to the door. “Before we leave. Tomorrow? We won’t be here much longer. The kids are going to fly out in a few days and we’ll be gone shortly after. I don’t want them waiting alone too long, it makes them crabby…” he smiles wryly.  “Well, more crabby.”

“Clint will miss them, I think. He went down there sometimes while you were gone. I followed him  once; he was teaching Dummy to play catch.”

“He can visit.”

“He won’t.”

“I know,” Tony heaves a sigh. “I’ll make him something; give me some time to work out what. Maybe a bot to clean the vents if he’s still planning on living up there. Or set him and Dummy up on a Skype date. Dummy would like that; he’s never had a Skype date before.”

Steve stands to get them both something to drink. Tony is resting his chin on his fist when he turns back to hand one of the glasses over. Juice, because half of what Tony eats (despite hard work on both his and Bruce’s parts) seems to be take out. High in nutrients it is not.

“You know I’m coming back eventually, right?”

“Of course.”

“No you don’t.” He takes a drink. “You have an ingrained need to keep everyone within grabbing distance because you think we’re all going to die and leave you alone again.” Steve’s eye twitches. “I’m coming back Steve.”

“Yes, fine.”

“This is what phones are for. My god, it’s like you think you can actually get rid of me.” He continues. “I’m practically your landlord, except I pay for everything.”

“About that-”

“No, be quiet. Just because I need to bail for a while doesn’t mean any of you are allowed to move out. You’re fine here.” He grins again, real and strong this time, a crooked thing, and doesn’t that just spell disaster. “Besides, if you move out then Pepper won’t be able to call you my kept men anymore.” Steve chokes mid-drink. “Not Natasha, but she’s not a man, so that would be illogical. She called by the way, just in case you were curious, a couple days into the Malibu trip. Something about minimizing the carnage at the tower. We talked, Clint’s less paranoid now. Everyone wins.”

“I don’t feel like ‘less paranoid’ should qualify as winning.”

Tony shrugs. “We have problems.” 

Steve laughs because he can’t help it and it’s true. Tony taps his glass against Steve’s in a toast and leans back into his seat.

“We do.”

-

No control.

He knows he’s not really losing anyone, not in the way he did before, but knowing doesn’t stop the feeling of the ice creeping up around him.

Steve goes to his room to grab a sketch pad and pencils, setting up in the common room so he can watch the movement. Around lunch Bruce joins him, Natasha comes next followed closely by Clint. Twenty minutes later Tony stumbles up the stairs like he was pushed, but Loki doesn’t follow. They eat together as a team for the first time in four months.

After they have dispersed, while he knows Loki is with Tony in the lab, Steve slips into Loki’s quarters and leaves a drawing of a small bird propped up where he had left the book over a month ago.

It is gone later, after everything, but he doesn’t find it crumpled in the trash.

-

They have all that needs moving packed and are ready to close up the last crate, Butterfingers trying to wedge the lid on without any help, when he walks in.

-

The first thing Loki does upon seeing the Aesir is hurl a screwdriver at him, and then hand Dummy the fire extinguisher.

Only when the Midgardian is laughing his ass off and Loki’s surge of rage appropriately subdued is Fandral allowed to sit at one of the tables. Neither one of them hands him a towel.

“What do you want?”  Loki stalks past him, not bothering to look in his direction.

Fandral opens his mouth, closes it, and tries again, but nothing comes out. He runs a hand through his hair. “I was- I couldn’t-”

“Have your own thoughts? Stand up to them?”

The hand in his hair tightens and tugs in frustration, then he lets go to shake the flecks of white foam off, looking back at Loki.

“Not couldn’t,” he admits, sick with himself. “I just… didn’t. And I’m sorry, but-” he speaks over Loki’s growl and the look Stark is giving both of them. “In my defense you were acting a little mad.”

“Perhaps I would have been less so if the lot of you weren’t defying the Allfather’s orders, let alone those of your present king. It is not as though there was any movement against you before your betrayal.”

“The coronation-”

“I was acting exactly as I was meant to!”

He has never understood Loki’s relationship with Thor; every time he thinks he does it is shattered with some new twist that does not make sense. Perhaps Loki is telling him the truth. He does not know. 

Next to Loki, a metal contraption whirs and the man looks down as if it is speaking.

“Why now?”

Fandral jumps. “What?

“Why. Now.” Loki repeats. “You are here. Why not come earlier, did you not want to celebrate my destruction?”

“No,” he stands in a rush. “No- we didn’t- I… we were never told.” Or at least he wasn’t. Tt is possible, but he does not believe the others would have been able to keep it a secret from him. If only because Sif would wish to gloat. “Earlier I had a… feeling that something was not right, except I did not know for sure until the Allfather brought Thor back with him. The first time Thor returned to Asgard he holed himself up in his chambers and only rarely came out to speak to your- his- to speak to his mother.” 

“And the second time?”

“I have not seen him since the Allfather returned from,” Fandral cannot help but wince, “…retrieving you.” There is no sound but the shuffling of the Midgardian who has not stopped moving since he arrived, flitting around from place to place followed by other metal beasts that resemble the one beside what is still Fandral’s prince. In the pause Loki’s implication creeps up on him.

It is appalling.

“You really believe I would…” he cannot finish the thought. Loki looks away from him. The warrior does not know what to say, so he changes his approach. “Are you well?”

“He’s fine,” Stark steps in. “Better than fine. You should go away.”

“I do not need you to speak for me.”

“Funny,” the shorter man sidles closer, flicking the rag he had been wiping his hands with at Loki and leering when it is swatted away in bemused irritation. “That’s not what you said last night.” Fandral looks back and forth between them, because he had heard stories of Before during the second prince’s brief imprisonment.

“Did he not throw you out of a window?”

There appears to be some kind of aggravated noise that comes from the walls.

“Yes.” Loki flips through the papers on one of the tables in disinterest.

“It wasn’t very effective,” Tony prods Loki in the shoulder. “Try harder next time.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“I’ll build a fake Thor and you can have at it.”

“Will his head be a watermelon? I would like to see it splatter.”

“That… is a little disturbing.”

Loki shrugs.

They both continue on as if they had not been inadvertently discussing the death of one of his childhood friends. There is nothing Fandral has to say to this, so after a moment of feeling adrift and alone he shifts directions for the second time and asks the Midgardian for permission to speak with Loki in private. It feels… strange, but when he is unsure of his welcome he does try to be courteous. And he is in the man’s tower. Hopefully his prince will not take it too personally.

Stark grumbles, looks pointedly at the ceiling and then to Loki, who nods. They leave the Midgardian’s workshop in silence.

The tower is large; no matter how long they travel the space never appears to end. Their conversation starts awkwardly. They argue and mock, each taking the other’s irritation where it is due and giving back just as viciously; for a time Fandral says nothing at all and just listens. When they have exhausted their options, or rather they are both too tired to continue because they will always be able to find something to speak of, they walk quietly. Loki leads them to a doorway that opens a large metal box. Fandral follows him in, watching him hit one of the buttons.

“You could come back, for a time. There are people you need to see.” 

“The people I ‘need to see’ can damn well come here.”

“Saying that is all well and good, but the Allfather cannot just set everything aside whenever he wishes, and Eir has responsibilities in the Healing Rooms.”

Loki looks at him strangely, sharp at the corners. “Is that all?”

“Who else would you want to see?”

The door opens, they step out of the box to the large open room they had started in once out of the lab.

“I am surprised you are not encouraging me to mend things with Thor.”

“Who is this Midardian you spend so much time with?” There is a heavy breath at his obvious change in subject, but Loki must not want to speak of Thor either because for once Fandral is allowed to get away with it. “The inventor, yes? Obviously. He seemed reluctant to let you out of his sight. I must say, I am surprised that he allowed it.” 

“He is not my keeper, Fandral. And we are not out of his sight… although like Heimdall this all-seer also dislikes me. I might actually get away with less here.” He trails his fingers over the wall. “Since we’re on the subject, what of their gate keeper?”

“He is being suitably chastised.”

“… what does that mean?”

“I’m not sure; it did not feel prudent to question the Allfather’s announcement at the time. He was…” he stops, makes a face. A sly almost smile crosses Loki’s visage before disappearing.

“Displeased?”

“Terrifying.” 

-

After Fandral leaves, Loki finds a carving of ivory and the ancient tome he had been reading before his fall sitting innocuously in the common room. He snaps them up and flees to his quarters.

-

It is a vicious and cruel trick, perhaps not one Fandral is aware of, to suggest he visit Asgard.

Loki is not daft; he knows he is a war criminal here. Stark’s continued hospitality and the lack of a cell do not mean he is not contained. The only times he has left the tower are those when Fury has called him out (never to a base, only warehouses to be discarded after use, it would not do for him to know where they nest after all), always escorted, and Stark’s spontaneous trip which must have broken some part of the agreement. He had reached out with magic once, but he had not stepped outside. There were rules that he does not push. Not until he is certain of his own safety, and a change in environment, to Malibu, doesn’t mean that these rules no longer exist. 

It is not as though there is anything else left for him. 

Still, it has been some time since he has seen Father. The tie between them is a small thing, stretched thin with distance, not the same as Thor’s tangled ever-present one. 

There are some things he misses; his chambers and the library, his horse…

The garden.

No.

It is not as though he has a choice; there is no reason to dwell on what will not happen.

“Do you want to?” Tony had asked him. 

And because he did not have an answer Loki stalked out of the kitchen.

Sitting on a barstool, obviously listening in, is the Widow disassembling an apple with the skill of a surgeon. They stay in quiet contemplation of each other until she dismisses him completely and turns her attention back to the fruit in front of her. He is at the doors of the elevator before she speaks.

“You are not locked in the tower.” The skin of the apple the Widow is peeling falls to the surface of the bar, barely any flesh attached. Loki slowly shifts back to face her, unsure if he had heard her correctly. “Keeping you here, only inside, was never part of any agreement. You have the ability to leave if you want.” 

She lies.

“Ask Stark if you don’t believe me. He’ll tell you the same.”

Loki stares at her.

-

The last time he saw Eir had been… not good. He misses her, misses the gardens, one of the only safe places he had before the lab and so intrinsically tied to Eir that he cannot separate them in his mind, but worse than missing her are the possibilities of their reunion dreamt up in his mind. Denial, rejection, hate, disgust, fear; even though he deserves nothing else from her, he doesn’t want these things.

It is all he can think of.

-

“You thought you were trapped here?” Tony asks when they are sitting around in Loki’s quarters at the tower. The disbelief on his face is difficult for Loki to accept, not because he thinks it to be false, but because the honest bewilderment and guilt (no matter that Stark tries to hide it) of another for a perceived slight to him is foreign. Others had not cared, it was a fact Loki accepted long ago. “That’s just- no. That’s not true. I mean, it’s probably better that you didn’t go cavorting around New York at will, because S.H.I.E.L.D., but I never meant to lock you in. Hell, your father wouldn’t have let me even if I wanted to… I thought you knew that.”

Loki shrugs.

That is always his problem, isn’t it. Not knowing.

“Sometimes I think…” he begins minutes later, running a fingernail over the weave of threads in the couch fabric. “It would have been so much easier if I was real.” 

“What?”

“From the beginning, I mean.”

“Real.” The skeptical tone is not one Loki has heard from Tony in a while.

“Yes. Why is that so difficult to-”

“I’m just trying to wrap my mind around- it all seems real to me. The anger, the shitty family members, feeling… different than everyone around you. That’s all real. You being the one that feels it doesn’t make any of that less than what it is.” Loki doesn’t respond, and he doesn’t look at him. “For a couple hours,” Stark asks him again. “Do you want to go?”

He buries his face in a couch cushion. 

The next day Tony stands with him on the roof as he steps out onto a path between worlds, disappearing into airy wisps of light.

-

There are many directions he could take, hidden doorways over all of Asgard. He could walk to the throne room or the vaults, to the market or the gatehouse (there were some words to be had with Heimdall after all). He could announce himself without shame, reminding all of them how they had failed to contain him. He could creep out of the shadows, taking valuables back with him when he departed.

Loki does none of these things. 

When he slips out of the hidden paths the first sense to hit him is scent and the fragrant sweetness of the apple trees that surround him. Before he opens his eyes Loki takes a moment to relax and sink into the wind and the smell of fruit and earth; it is not The orchard, but that hardly matters. Compared to the lacquered and plated surfaces of the capital this field of trees is a different world.

He climbs the tallest one he can find, stretching out in the branches and cutting one of the apples apart with a knife, enjoying each slice slowly. The pieces are not eaten, but the feel of the blade sinking into the fruits’ flesh is methodic and calming. He prepares two more and then drops out of the tree, making his way to the stables past the fields and fenced in pastures.

Like the gardens, the fields where the horses are kept have always been one of his favorite places. It was not an area he frequented as a child, but when he had been cast out into the world by the Queen’s decree he had searched out new spaces to call his own. The fields were not quiet by any means, yet they were also not busy; the only creatures that disturbed him there were the animals, who didn’t care what he was made from as long as he was kind and plied them with treats. Which he did, readily. 

By the time he actually arrives at the stables half of his apple slices are gone, given the animals in the fields he walked through. He can hear his horse whinny inside before he even reaches the doors.

A weight is lifted from him when he finally sees her, just as she was when he left.  Her coat an unfading blue-black that shone as though she was covered in velvet, with strong legs and a temper. He reaches out for her at once, holding her muzzle softly when she is close enough.

“Did they take care of you?” He rubs her nose, running both hands up along her jaw. She head butts him in the shoulder.

She appears to be well tended to, her stall clean, her long mane and tail smooth and untangled (he had been worried, so worried, once he had come back to himself enough to realize he should be. He had not wanted to believe the stable hands would neglect her, he had known each of them, but he was not sure).

He digs what is left of the slices out of his pouch, listens to the crunches as she chews them. Her ease allowing the nerves he was still feeling despite himself to leech away.  The only reason Loki does not take her out for a ride is because there are others he would like to see; if they go running together it is likely they will run all day and never come back.

One of the stable attendants walks by while he is there, stopping to stare at him a moment before continuing on with his duties, only coming back again a few minutes later with grooming tools and little other acknowledgement of Loki’s presence. 

Loki stays for another hour.

She nips him in the side while he is leaving, the sting a lasting reminder that he left her alone too long and should under no circumstances do it again. As he stops to rub Sleipnir’s neck, who nickers at him as he passes, Loki wonders if there is a place on Midgard he could take her. If there would be space in one of Stark’s dwellings (he tucks the thought away for later).

There is still time yet before Father’s council will be dismissed and so he walks by the library. He does not have enough time to study in length (and he is sure he smells of horse by the looks he is getting from the minder of the archives) so he instead pages through the tomes on healing and medicine, skimming sections to make sure they will be helpful and then tucking them into the satchel he took from the barn. 

He finds Father in the war room, re-purposed for political negotiations. The shelf of old scrolls still where it was during his first visit as a child. When the council is gone he steps out from the shadows. Odin smiles at him, resting a hand on the back of his neck and pulling him closer, leaning their foreheads together and breathing as though that is the only thing that is important.

When they draw apart Father moves to sit on one of the benches at the edge of the room. There is not what Loki would consider a conscious invitation to sit down, but there is enough space for him to perch beside Father and because attempting to move a chair at this point could be perceived as an insult or rejection, Loki sits.

They do not speak about the bridge; perhaps, Loki thinks, because Father knows he is not ready for it. Instead Odin talks about his blood-brother, Loki’s namesake. How Loki’s intelligence and skill with sorcery remind him of the man every day. How they had gotten into trouble in their youths, at times almost as arrogant as Thor was. How he had died saving Odin’s life in the war against his own people.

“Thor knew him as Loki through stories, he was too young to form many solid memories of his uncle, but he usually went by Loptr. It fit him, to be named after air. It was impossible to hold him in one place for long unless he had a mind to be there.” He runs a wrinkled hand over one of his bracers as he speaks, a story hidden there that Loki wants to know, then shakes the thought from his mind and turns his full attention to his son. “I suppose I am always meant to have a Loki by my side.” The hand combing through Loki’s hair comes to a rest again on the back of his neck. “That is why the fates blessed me with you.” Then he smiles, mirth at some inner thought all but glowing from his eyes. “It might surprise you to know that you are significantly less trouble than him.”

Loki tries to give a mischievous grin in return, but it feels uncertain, and he cannot stop himself from speaking because he can never just let good things happen to him; it is as though he has a subconscious need to ruin everything (that apparently had not come from his bond with Thor). 

“Which of us is your favorite?” 

The answer he expects wavers between being told that it was of course his brother and a casual diplomatic walk around of an actual choice. The one he gets is firm, with clear fondness for both of them.

“He was my brother, but you are my son. I believe he would invent a special kind of punishment if I were to say anything but you.”

-

Loki stays with him through the afternoon repast. There will likely be a feast in the evening, but for now the Allfather is content to keep his own company. An older ambassador from Vaneheim joins them, one Loki remembers visiting several times before when he was small, but that is all. They touch on policy once or twice, but generally stay to more informal topics which somehow manages to include comments about how Loki has grown since the first time they met and how pleased the Allfather must be to have his son returned to him. The ambassador does not speak of Thor at all.

After the meal is cleared, leaving Father to his work, Loki meanders through the palace without bothering to spell himself invisible. There is no one he needs to hide from. Those that matter know he is there, and those that don’t, well, he doesn’t really care what they think right now. 

He does avoid the common gathering places of the courtiers, but he does not want to visit those areas anyway, so it is no great sacrifice. The less frequented halls are the ones that hold items of interest (several of which he tucks away for future use, just because he can). The only people he crosses are servants, which seems odd; he won’t fight his luck though, besides, it rather pleases him that many of them react little different than they had before his fall when he was still their prince. 

In fact, the afternoon goes so smoothly that before he realizes it he finds himself wandering through the wing that held his old room. This is of course when everything goes wrong. Why everything always goes wrong.

Thor.

Loki immediately turns in the other direction.

“- wait, please! Let me-”

“I do not have to do what you ask of me anymore; there is no reason for me to stay.” There is the sound of running, a hand touches his arm. “Don’t-” he jerks away “ever touch me again.” Loki does not look at Thor because he doesn’t want to notice how destroyed he looks, doesn’t want to care. “Things will never be as they were before. And even if they could be, I wouldn’t want it. We may have the same father, Thor. But we are not brothers.” He tries to walk away, several strides away something draws him back. “I… I-” he covers his face with his hands, only for a moment. “I loved you!” rips out of him “Don’t you understand that?! You were my everything. I would have given- did give- anything to make you happy. My soul, Thor! And even then you couldn’t- do you know what it felt like?! When the only thing that mattered- all I knew- was you and you still threw me aside because what you made me into wasn’t good enough for you! Why was I not good enough?! Why am I NEVER GOOD ENOUGH?!”

Silence hangs between them, Thor reaching for words that won’t come to him.

“You-” he whispers. “I… ”

“SHUT UP!” Thor does. “Shut. Up.”

Loki walks away.

A week later he will realize that Thor had been stripped of his armor, evidence of his rank dissolved to nothing, but at the time he notices only the rawness inside of him.

-

It takes a servant asking after his welfare for Thor to move.

Down in the vaults there is a pedestal tucked away from the other artifacts, hidden back in the darkness. Resting there is the hammer forged in the heart of a dying star. 

It is not where Thor wants to be, but there is nowhere else for him to go.

He walks down the curving stairs, arms hanging limply at his sides. There is a hollowness in the center of him, but otherwise he is numb.

He does not try to lift her. He does not know how long he is there. 

Guards come to escort him back to his chambers.

-

Conditioned in Loki is the idea that the gardens are a place of safety, and so, whenever he is upset, that’s where he goes. It is a traitorous, disgusting, predictable habit, but he cannot help himself. Loki doesn’t stop until he is leaning against the stone archway. The smell of the flowers (each with a purpose, nothing decorative) hits him, ruining his ability to move, and he stays there head tipped back, breathing wretched, until he hears a quiet exclamation and opens his eyes.

Eir stands in front of him, basket on the ground at her feet, dropped gatherings spilled over the grass and path.

When she opens her mouth, he thinks it is to say his name, but her voice chokes out and his stomach is filled with a horrible burning shame as he rips away the remnants of the spell he had cast on her before his fall.

“I’m sorry,” is all he is capable of. Just sorrysorrysorryplease, and he thinks he must be saying this out loud because her posture shifts and then she’s reaching out.

“Oh, you stupid child. Come here.” She wraps her arms around him and clutches him close. It takes a moment for Loki to respond, but when he does it is to circle his arms around her waist and bury his face in her shoulder. “I was frightened for you.” Eir pets his hair, threads her fingers through what is at the base of his neck. “And of you a bit, I suppose, when you had your hand around my neck…”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know, dear. Just don’t do it again.”

After everything, all he has done, all he is, those five words alight a vivid clarity and he knows how unworthy he is of her kindness. Her insistence on giving it to him without question leaves him confused and disoriented.

“I am not…” The words escape him, he tries to follow them away, but Eir will not allow him to leave.

“Why are you not.” She holds his face in her hands, refusing to let him look away. “Why. Were the first men not made of the Ash tree? The first women of Elm? How are you different? Birch is strong,” she whispers, pulls him closer. “You. Are. Strong. It has adapted, and so will you.”

He leans into her.

They stay in the gardens until evening falls. Meticulously picking up all that has fallen, combing the plants for anything missed, and sitting under the trees sheltered in the shade. When Eir finally stands she reaches a hand down to him. “Come back,” she says. Loki nods. Then she shuffles him out the gates and takes his arm. He walks her to the Healing Room while she answers questions he has from the records he pilfered earlier in the day. When he is done reading them he will come back for a more substantial conversation.

Fandral meets him outside the doors, not giving any excuse for how he knew where to find him.

“I thought I could… see you back to the Bifrost?”

“Fandral,” Loki says slowly. “I do not use the Bifrost.”

The man’s shoulders slump a little in disappointment, but he still trails after Loki when he walks in the vague direction of one of the pastures. “You will be returning to Midgard then?” Loki glances at him, but does not respond. “The inventor, the Man of Iron Thor spoke of, he will continue to be your host? He is good for you.”

“Yes,” Loki nods, he hadn’t actively considered it, but it is true. “Yes, he is.”

“Good.” They walk aimlessly, Fandral following Loki’s lead even though he has no clear destination in mind. “You will… return? Sometimes? To visit Eir and the Allfather?”

“I may.”

“I would like the chance to speak with you again. If you would permit it.”

Fandral studies the ground they walk on. Loki half smiles only because he knows the other man won’t see it and allows their shoulders to bump.

“Perhaps.”

-

A week and a half after they return to Malibu, Ms. Potts arrives with dinner catered in and a bottle of wine. 

Loki is reclining by the wall of windows, cheek pressed to the cool glass and legs splayed on the floor, staring into the distance at the expanse of clear blue water before him. The opening door snaps him back and he sweeps the tome on healing magic he had been largely ignoring for the last hour into a leather satchel and wedges it behind a standing plant before rolling his eyes at himself in irritation and spelling it back to his room.

By the time he stands up the food is already on the closest table and she is unpinning her hair.

“Oh, there you are,” she says when she notices him approach behind her, jumping as if he had appeared out of thin air. “JARVIS told me you were in the living room, but I didn’t see you on my way through.”

“I was…” he gestures aimlessly at the windows, not quite sure what he had been doing. She smiles at him, shifting nervously as the last of the pins comes out and the copper strands fall about her shoulders.

“It’s a beautiful view, one of my favorites here. JARVIS, get Tony please.”

“Of course, Ms. Potts.”

As she moves to the kitchen for plates and silverware Loki follows. She asks about his stay so far, what he thinks of the West Coast, how he is handling… and then she trails off. JARVIS interrupts before either can restart the conversation.

“I regret to inform you that Sir says he is occupied with a delicate part of his current project and is not able to stop at this current time.”

“No he’s not.”  She has taken three plates out of the cupboard and pauses once she realized what she’s done. “Tell him if he doesn’t come up he’s sleeping on the couch.”

“Sir would like me to remind you that is not a privilege you have if you are not staying at the mansion, and also that he is on his way up.”

“I’m sorry,” Ms. Potts turns to face him after JARVIS is finished speaking, leaning back against the counter. “Is it that you don’t need to eat or that you can’t eat?”

Not a question he was expecting. “I… I don’t suppose I know. I’ve never tried because I’ve never felt compelled to.” She watches him, brow furrowed, and then puts one of the plates back.

“Have you ever considered asking?”

They are walking back to the food when Tony arrives, bounding up to Pepper like a child until he gets within a foot of her and suddenly reconsiders whether or not the action is welcome. The hesitation is covered up by bravado.

“The couch Pep? Really?”

“Sit down and eat something.” She leans in to kiss him. Tony melts into her, arm wrapping around her waist.

Loki is about to cross the room and make his way up the staircase to give them some privacy when Tony detaches himself and disappears into the kitchen. When he comes back it’s with a large glass of water that is tinted pink, probably with some kind of berry. They look at him expectantly as they move back to the couches. He follows.

The fixed plates are set on the coffee table and Pepper steps out of her heels, picking them up by the straps and walking barefoot over the cool wooden floor on her way to find wine glasses.

“What do you want to watch?” Tony calls after her.

“I don’t know, let JARVIS pick.”

While Tony argues with his A.I. over the merits of explosions versus actual plots, Pepper drops gracefully on the couch beside Loki. She sips from her wine flute, lets the taste resonate, then nudges his shoulder with the tip of her finger, voice quiet.

“You said that Thor would protect people, when they need it.”

“I-… yes.”

“What about you? When you needed it, did he protect you?”

“I am complicated Ms. Potts.”

She looks at him thoughtfully.

It should bother him he thinks, being surrounded by these mortals. Thoughts of the invasion swirl at the corners of his mind. 

It doesn’t.

-

He is not an Avenger, doesn’t ever want to be, but he likes Dummy and his brothers, and he thinks he likes the Man of Iron, so if an occasional protective spell gets woven into the circuitry of the suits and the machines then what of it. Besides, it’s not as though he is telling anyone what he’s doing. And if no one knows than it’s not a feeling he has to dwell on too deeply.

The visit to Asgard had let loose a torrent of emotion that Loki had neither expected nor been prepared to deal with. The need to spread out, to find secret places and learn and Be cries for freedom; the feeling is worse than before, eating away at him. It had been happy enough to stay, but Loki can’t. His quarters and the lab, though they feel safe (mostly), chafe him. The move to Malibu had helped some, the estate new and peaceful, but still not enough.

He has never done well trapped within four walls, even if they are beautiful.

“You can’t keep me here.” He says one day sitting on the couch in the lab (the same one that had been in the tower, flown out at the same time as the robots), legs crossed on the cushions in front of him. Tony looks over from where he is doing maintenance on Butterfingers.

“I know.”

-

Thor returns once, after Stark has moved Loki out to California. Clint is the only one in the tower. He doesn’t tell anyone else about the visit.

“Can I ask you something?” When he speaks, his voice is calm and quiet. Collected. Everything he is not feeling. “Do you really know what you’re apologizing for? Do you even get why this is fucked up? Do you? Because it’s like you don’t even have a rudimentary grasp of anything right now.” Thor has stopped with his mouth open, like he’s trying to respond, but nothing comes out. Clint doesn’t care. He keeps talking, keeping his tone light and pleasant because if he doesn’t- nothing, nothing good will happen. “Let me try to break this down for you. So your parents decided, what- that real kids weren’t good enough to play with you? But they want you to have a friend- a friend Thor, do you know what that means?- so they make one. They make one that is capable of thinking and feeling and needing. They make a living being. Except it’s not one, is it.”

“Clint-”

“So despite the fact that they built a child, it’s not real. It is treated as a toy because it was made to be a toy. And toys do not think.” He stands. “They do not feel.”  Thor’s eyes follow him. “And they do not need. And when that child, that little boy, goes to his family, and he feels, and he needs, they decide they are entitled to treat those feelings and those needs as beneath them,” his forces his voice not to crack. “As crap. They can’t be real, so the family is justified, because toys are incapable of any of any of that.” Clint does not think of Barney, and he does not think of his father.  “Are you apologizing, Thor, because you realized what you did last year. Or because you realized what you’ve done his entire existence.”

“You defend him, I do not understand,” Thor had whispered. “You do not like him.”

“No,” Clint walked out of the room. “I hate him.”

Thor does not come back.

 

Chapter Text

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept… But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 

The Velveteen Rabbit

 



-

Bruce visits sometimes, he also calls; they have science dates facilitated by JARVIS and Tony’s awesome phone software. He sees Natasha once in a while too, prowling through Stark Industry hallways like she owns the place, which considering Happy’s recent security badge obsession is a little strange, at least until he checks the system and realizes Natalie Rushman still technically works for him. He texts her a request for coffee when he knows she’s in the building. She responds with a picture of herself using an iphone and flicking him off. Then he gets a text from Pepper telling him to leave Natasha alone.

Pepper comes around more often now even if she hasn’t completely moved back in yet, and they talk at least once a day over the phone about something that is not work or Loki related. It helps, plus if he keeps himself busy enough then he’s able to forget about missing her as much as he does. It’s ridiculous. They’ve been on different sides of the country for weeks at a time before; he should be able to handle giving her a little space if she needs it.

He buries himself in his work, the plans he had been making for new suit designs multiplying and coming to form. Sculpted perfection that surrounds him. There is no reason for him to need this many suits, but it’s distracting. And that’s something he does need.

Loki is gone.

One day he had been on the couch navigating through his tablet, a steady flow of biting commentary, and the next he had disappeared; neither hide nor hair of him left.

Tony waited, asked JARVIS to search, made a device to scan for “magic” feedback using bits and pieces of the data he was able to gather since the day Thor brought the dwarves to the tower. There is nothing.

He tries very very hard not to think about what that absence could mean.

When he finally tells the others Steve remains optimistic, Clint does not. 

Life goes back to as normal as it can be for the Avengers and over time even the bots gradually (albeit reluctantly) accept Loki’s departure.

And then the bombings start.

The frustration and anger built over the last year (hell, the last couple years. Since he was trapped in the caves really) comes to a head and when he calls out the Mandarin on national television it takes until he’s sitting quietly on the beige couch in the living room to think what the fuck did I just do.

All at once everything is fire and madness and heneedstosavePepper the ground falling to pieces around him he’s in the suit but he can’t fly and water. Everywhere. The world is dark and blue; he hopes his babies are alright because all he can see are crumbled bits of his home sinking down around him. There’ll be nightmares of this too, he thinks as he tries to push wreckage off of his lower body, JARVIS speaking in his ear about power levels and thruster capacity. Nightmares of his bots drowning, confused and scared sinking down into the depths

The last conscious thought to cross his mind before the suit jerks and everything goes black is Where is Pepper.

He wakes to crashing through trees and snow with no control, adrenaline spiking in fear and cold in a way he doesn’t think he’s ever been before (Where is Pepper) and then he’s stranded in Middle of Nowhere Tennessee with no JARVIS, no working suit, no plan, and a 10-year old who decides Tony is his new father figure, which is probably the worst idea ever.

It doesn’t get much better after that. 

He has to fight his way back to civilization, commandeering equipment to track the Mandarin’s location down and stealing (borrowing?) a car to get there. The only weapons at his disposal are what he can piece together with odds and ends he picks up on the trip. He’s a fucking genius, obviously, but when he finally arrives at the Miami headquarters he’s not exactly inspired by his odds of getting out alive.

He is lurking around the bushes of the grounds with his Macgyvered tazer when a hand touches his shoulder and he nearly has a heart attack.

“What in the nine realms are you doing?”

Tony barely stops himself from lashing out in reflex as Loki steps out of the shadows like he was never gone. “Jesus Christ! What- Loki?! Why are you-”

There are shouts past the wall of greenery and Tony swears, grabbing one of Loki’s sleeves and dragging him along. A man in heavy black gear with a gun comes out of nowhere and Tony hits him in the chest, letting the safety off of the glove and electricity shock the man into unconsciousness. They both watch as the guard falls to the ground, twitching.

Loki makes some kind of aggravated angry cat noise and looks at the technological mess on Tony’s hand like it was a personal affront to his existence. “Why is it always electricity wielders,” he grumbles, voice almost literally dripping with disdain. Tony laughs in relief.

“Fuck you, I’m awesome.”

Loki shoves him good-naturedly into the wall.