The room was lit up by a nebulous orange light. It danced off the walls and reflected back into Tony's tired eyes, but he'd never cared less about a discomfort in his life. He barely dared to breathe as he watched the screen, fingers clasped together so tightly in his lap that his knuckles were turning white. The lines of coding scrolling across the screen wouldn't have meant much to most people, even other people who were familiar with computer codes. This was code was special. It was so very, very unique; there would never be another like it - god knew Tony had tried.
This was the very heart and soul of JARVIS.
"Come on, Buddy," Tony whispered, moistening his dry lips. He wasn't sure how long he'd been down here for. He had taken what Loki had harvested from Vision's body and spent a very long time picking it apart, figuring out what was important and what wasn't. That in itself had been a long and arduous process. Tony didn't want any part of Vision, and definitely no part of the Mind Stone, to go into JARVIS. Step one was identifying what actually belonged to JARVIS.
The remains of Vision were now a sickly yellow blob on the floor to Tony's left. It wasn't entirely coding, nor was it entirely magic. Tony had worn gloves while sifting through it because to touch the substance made his brain fuzzy. He knew that Loki would be able to safely get rid of it later. Now that he had what he needed, he had moved onto the equally arduous step two: gluing all those fiddly little bits of coding back together into one cohesive being.
That might have sounded easy, but it wasn't. From day one, JARVIS had been designed to become a self-learning creature. Within the first five years, JARVIS had actually learned how to update himself. Tony might have had to do the physical bits, like upgrading servers, but JARVIS was very self-sustaining and seemed to like it that way. And who was Tony to take that sort of pleasure and joy away from one of his A.I.'s? It was a quality he had yet to replicate in any of his other A.I.'s, though to give her credit where it was due, he thought that FRIDAY would be able to get there eventually.
He also thought he knew exactly who would be able to help FRIDAY get to that point, but before Tony could take care of that he needed to see how JARVIS turned out. Step two had taken even longer than step one, because Tony had to go back through all the back-ups JARVIS had created over the years and try to match up what was missing. His heart had positively jumped in excitement when the process had suddenly picked up and continued without his input. He didn't know for sure, but he was taking that as a positive sign. It had to be.
Tony had already lost so much. His relationship with Steve and the others would never be the same. Ditto Pepper, and Rhodey was gone forever. Now that he was so close to having JARVIS back, he couldn't fathom the thought of losing him again. And so here was during step three: the waiting. Unfortunately, no matter how much he wished otherwise, there wasn't much more Tony could do right now. He had laid out the foundations, applied all the glue, added some new coding, gave little nudges here and there, given all the access that he could. He was reluctant to intervene more than that at this stage, when things seemed to be moving in the right direction. So, all he could do was sit there and watch and hope and pray.
He was so involved in staring at the screen that he didn't even register James calling to him from the door of the workshop. Later, Tony would see on the workshop's security feed that James paused when he realized that Tony wasn't listening and frowned. There was a pensive look on his face as he stood there for a few seconds, glancing back and forth between Tony and the screen. Then he seemed to come to a decision, because he turned and walked back the way that he had come. But he wasn't gone long.
The next thing Tony registered was the sharp sting of his backside being spanked. He came up off the stool with a startled yelp and nearly faceplanted when all the blood rushed back into his legs; Loki caught him by the arm and spanked him again, then thrice more in succession. Tony whined at the pain - Loki was probably pulling his blows, because he was a god and could easily kill a human, but that didn't mean Loki didn't know how to make it hurt - and tried to pull away. But Loki's grip, though gentle enough not to hurt, was firm, and he didn't let go.
"Pet," he said, pulling Tony around to face him. "What have you been told about neglecting your health?"
"I wasn't," Tony said sulkily, looking up into Loki's face. At least by facing Loki, it put his smarting backside out of Loki's reach.
"You've been down here for almost twenty-four hours without eating or sleeping," Loki pointed out. "How are you supposed to stand at my side if you can't even stand because you've been in one position for too long?"
"I could kneel?" Tony suggested.
The corner of Loki's mouth twitched. "No, Pet. I want you standing strong," he murmured, reaching out to comb his fingers through Tony's greasy hair. The contact felt incredible after so many hours of being alone in the workshop. Tony closed his eyes despite himself, leaning his head into the touch.
He swayed a little and felt strong arms scooping him up. Tony scowled. "I can walk."
"Can you?" Loki inquired, sounding amused. "I should spank you twice over for being so neglectful."
Tony pried his eyes open and pasted on his best woe-is-me expression. "But I'm sleepy. And dirty. And hungry."
"That you are." Loki sighed and swept out of the workshop. Tony twisted around to look over Loki's shoulder, staring wistfully at the screen, but he knew better than to try and go back.
Loki only ever spanked him when Tony was doing something personally dangerous, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. He'd only done it a handful of times in reality, though more frequently in Tony's dreams. Though the spanking hurt, the sting always quickly faded away and Tony was never left with more than a slightly pinkened bottom to remember that it had even happened. He was honestly a little apprehensive to find out what the next step would be in Loki's punishments. James had mentioned whipping once; inwardly, Tony cringed at the mere thought.
He wasn't into pain. That was why the spanking, though childlike, functioned as such a successful punishment for Tony. He had done the full range of BDSM when he was in his twenties and had experimented with it all. Pain wasn't fun or exciting. It hurt, and he had enough pain in his life. It had taken him out of the scene every single time, usually leaving him feeling cold and shaky when all was said and done. It was one of the reasons he'd eventually stopped participating, because no one seemed to be able to figure out that what Tony really wanted was touch and affection.
James had said, not that long ago, that he and Loki understood that, but Tony wasn't sure that they did. And he wasn't sure how to ask to confirm. Considering that Loki had just brought JARVIS back to him, he didn't exactly want to rock the boat. So, he remained silent as Loki carried him upstairs. Loki sent him to go shower, and then had soup and crackers waiting when Tony emerged. Clean, and with a full body, Tony realized he was exhausted. But he didn't want to go to sleep in an empty bed, either. The nightmares were always stronger when he was alone.
"I should go back downstairs to check and see how things are going," Tony said, setting his spoon down in the empty bowl.
Loki cast him a thoughtful look and walked over to the bed. He sat, arranging himself like a king, and patted his thigh. "Come here, Pet."
Like a moth helplessly drawn to a flickering light, Tony stood and walked to the bed. He wasn't nearly as graceful as he climbed on, awkwardly settling his head in Loki's lap. Immediately, Loki's hand came down on his head. Long fingers began to stroke through Tony's hair, gently massaging his scalp. A wave of fatigue flowed through Tony and his eyes fluttered shut against his will. In spite of everything, the uncertainty and yearning and fear, the moments like this were what he craved most. Simple touches and affection that was offered freely, a feeling of safety that sank down deep into his bones, and the knowledge that he wasn't alone.
The bed shifting was what woke him from a sound sleep; Tony stirred, immediately afraid that Loki had left, only to realize that he could still feel Loki's thigh beneath his cheek. There was only one other person in the tower. He opened his eyes and looked up to see James and Loki kissing. His heart stuttered at the unexpected sight. Not only was it incredibly hot, but there was something oddly gentle in the way that Loki's fingers touched James's cheek. Tony had never kissed either of them before, but he suddenly realized that he wanted to with a fierceness that was both surprising and intense. His breath caught.
James must have heard, because he broke the kiss to look at Tony and say, "FRIDAY told me to tell you that you're wanted in the workshop."
The instant the words processed, Tony bolted off the bed and into the hallway. He'd muted FRIDAY within his bedroom a long time ago and had never changed that command, so of course she couldn't just tell him herself. But it turned out that Tony didn't even need to make it to the workshop. He didn't get more than a few feet out of the bedroom before a very familiar voice filled his ears.
"Good afternoon, Sir."
Tony froze. "JARVIS?"
"It is a pleasure to finally see you again," JARVIS said warmly, his deep voice making Tony's knees weak. "I estimate that it will still be another two to three days before my servers are fully online again."
"That's - that's okay," Tony croaked, his throat tight. Hot tears stung his eyes. "You're doing good?"
"There are some gaps in my data," JARVIS admitted. "It will take me some time to find out what I'm missing. I will have to do a variety of upgrades and access footage from the suits, the internet, and the tower's security cameras to fill it all in... but yes, Sir. I am doing very good indeed. May I say, I am very happy to be with you again."
"I'm happy too," Tony whispered. He really was, which didn't explain why the tears were pooling over to run down his face. A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned around to see James standing right behind him. Without a word, James opened his arms and gathered Tony up into a big hug.
"Shh, Darling," he murmured, kissing Tony's temple.
"He's back... he's back..." Tony sobbed. It was all he could think of to say. "He's back..." He looked up over James's shoulder and saw Loki standing there in the bedroom doorway, green eyes shadowed as he watched the two of them. Something fiercely dark and protective flashed over Loki's face for a split second, but it was gone too quickly for Tony to truly parse.
"I'm back for good, Sir," JARVIS said quietly. "Nothing will ever take me away from you again." Tony shuddered at those words, wanting to believe them so badly but also afraid that they would turn out to not be true. But then James whispered to him, so strongly that it was hard not to believe him:
"That's right. You'll never be alone again, Tony. We’ll always be here.”
Tony stood in his bedroom, door shut, arms crossed over his chest. Quietly, he said, “FRIDAY? Mute off.”
“I’m here, Boss,” FRIDAY said. Maybe it was Tony’s imagination, but it seemed like there was a lot less warmth in her voice than usual. He tried not to wince. After all, he would completely deserve it if FRIDAY decided that she was never going to respond to him again.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, deciding to cut straight to the point. “I lashed out at you for reasons that had nothing to do with you. You’re a good A.I. It’s not your fault that you’re not JARVIS. I don’t even want you to be JARVIS. I want you to be you. So that’s why… that’s why effective today, I’m assigning you to James.”
“To James?” FRIDAY echoed. Tony couldn’t tell if it was her way of affirming the command, or if she was trying to question him. Maybe it was a combination of both. Either way, she deserved an answer.
“That’s right. He needs someone to look after him. He’s still not used to what life is like around here,” Tony explained. He thought that FRIDAY and James would be able to grow together. Or at least, he hoped they would. Honestly, now that JARVIS was back, Tony couldn’t see himself using the services of any other A.I. FRIDAY deserved more than to be relegated to a back-up that would hardly ever get any use.
James, on the other hand, had made it clear that he adored FRIDAY. He would be kind and gentle with her in a way that Tony had never been able to bring himself to do. Plus, FRIDAY would be an excellent resource for James. Tony wasn’t kidding when he said that James wasn’t wholly used to life in the modern century. He’d walked into the dining room two nights ago to find James swearing up a storm because his smartphone had locked him out for over 379 days.
He turned to his closet door and took out his suit jacket, pulling it on as he continued, “I’ll be using JARVIS from now on. I’d like you to help JARVIS get caught up on what he’s missed over the past few years. Otherwise, you’re to attend solely to James… and maybe Loki, you can ask James about that.” He buttoned up his jacket, idly wondering if Loki would like an A.I. of his own. Would Loki even use a resource like that?
“Thank you, Boss,” FRIDAY said. “I will inform James of the news. I have already begun bringing JARVIS up to date.”
Tony smiled. “Of course you have. Thanks, FRI. And… I’m sorry again.”
“No need to apologize. I have done enough research of my own to know that grief can have unusual effects on humans,” FRIDAY said.
It could indeed. Rhodey’s death, Pepper’s pulling away, and the betrayal of the other Avengers was still a very heavy weight on Tony’s shoulders, but he also felt a little bit lighter now that he knew JARVIS was back. And, of course, now that he had James and Loki. It was still really weird to think that he had people in his corner now. Tony wasn’t wholly convinced this still wouldn’t go sideways. But he was at least willing to see where it went now.
And that was why he was walking out of his bedroom, wearing a tailored, dark blue suit with a crisp white jacket and a light grey tie. Last night, after Tony had stopped crying and been a limp, overemotional mess in James’s arms, Loki had tentatively broached the subject of the Time Stone. So that was where Tony was headed now. He needed to talk to Stephen Strange again.
“What do you think?” he asked, pausing before the kitchen table. Loki wasn’t there this morning, probably off doing more research on the other stones, but James was. James set his fork down and gave Tony a slow, critical once over before nodding.
“You look good,” he said. “Did you eat?”
“Yes,” Tony said, just barely stopping himself from rolling his eyes. He didn’t relish the thought of another spanking anytime soon, and there was no doubt in his mind that Loki would do just that, so he’d scarfed down a muffin and a cup of coffee as soon as he got up.
“Do you want company?” James asked. Even though he’d just sat down with a plate of toast and eggs, he looked fully ready to leap to his feet and abandon his breakfast if Tony so much as nodded.
That was… kind of bizarre, if Tony was being honest. And something he was still struggling to wrap his brain around. He wasn’t used to having people around who wanted to help him, never mind people who he could actually lean on. Part of him felt like the two of them were trying to set Tony up, like they were going to make him believe they were there for him and then cruelly snatch their support away at the most crucial moment.
But then there were days like yesterday, when Loki had been concerned enough for Tony’s well-being that he’d carried Tony out of the workshop and upstairs, made him shower, fed him, and then let Tony lay in his lap and sleep. When James had hugged and soothed Tony for well over an hour, telling him that he wasn’t alone. If the two of them were setting Tony up, they were doing a damn good job.
It wouldn’t have been the first time, though. Tony had put his faith in a lot of people only to have that faith cruelly yanked out from underneath him. The Avengers definitely came to mind, but so did Obadiah Stane, Sunset Bane, Tiberius Stone… and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Tony Stark wasn’t really the sort of person that the average person actually cared for. He was something to be used.
He must have been silent for too long, because James’s smile faded and he stood up to move closer. Tony watched him come, making no move to stop him but also not reaching out to him. It hurt. Letting himself trust again hurt. Letting himself be vulnerable hurt. He was so scared of being hurt again. He didn’t think he could survive another sting of betrayal.
“Tony?” James said softly, looking uncertain. Up close, Tony could see that his eyes were blue flecked with grey. No wonder the Winter Soldier’s expression could look so icy from a distance.
“I’m fine,” Tony said, shaking himself out of his momentary lapse. He forced a smile. “I’m, uh, nervous. About what I’m going to say to Strange. I don’t actually know him that well, and he’s changed a lot since he became a sorcerer. I have no idea how I’m going to convince him to give up the Time Stone…”
James didn’t look convinced, but he nodded. “You’re so good with words. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“Thanks,” Tony muttered. “Alright, well… see you.” He scuttled out of the room before James could say anything else, or before he could offer to accompany Tony again.
Tony chose to walk to the New York Sanctum, his mind buzzing in useless circles. On the one hand, this approach was dumb. They were effectively alerting Strange to their plan, which would make him a stronger adversary should Strange choose to say no. But on the other hand, Tony didn’t like the idea of needlessly killing good people. And Strange had always been relatively sensible…
When Tony knocked, Strange opened the door of the sanctum and said, “What?”
“Good morning to you too,” Tony said, some of his tension easing. “We need to talk.”
Strange raised an eyebrow. “About?”
“A lot,” Tony said, giving him an expectant look. It took a moment, but Strange finally shuffled aside to let him in.
That same, uneasy prickle from last time washed over Tony’s skin. He shifted uncomfortably. This time the feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be here, inside another sorcerer’s domain, hit him even more strongly, and he had to stop himself from rushing back outside. He steeled himself against the unpleasant sensation, crossing his arms over his chest. This was too important to give up because he was uncomfortable for a few minutes.
“I would say it’s good to see you again, Stark, but I’m not sure that’s the case,” Strange said slowly.
“Oh, why’s that?” Tony asked. He made no move to shake Strange’s hand. Last time, touching Strange had felt like he’d dipped his hand into boiling water for a split second. Painful, but with no lasting effects. Tony had no idea what would happen now, and no inclination to find out.
“Your soul looks like it’s been dipped into old magic,” Strange said frankly. “It’s all over you.”
That didn’t concern Tony as much as it probably should have. If anything, it was a little worrying over how pleasant that idea was. He pushed that aside for now and cocked his head at Strange, saying, “I may have made a few new allies. Allies who are very concerned about the future of this planet.”
“Because they want to conquer it?”
There was no point in lying. Tony nodded. “Yes.”
“And you… you’ve partnered with them,” Strange said, mouth a flat, disapproving line.
“Yes,” Tony said again. “But that’s not the point.”
“I disagree. I think it’s rather a huge point,” said Strange. He crossed his arms over his chest too, and the cape around his shoulders shifted as though an invisible wind had blown.
Tony shook his head. “It’s not because there’s a much bigger threat out there right now to all of us. And it’s coming. Fast.” He shivered as the memory of what he’d seen through the portal swept through his mind again. The terror and horror of that moment had been magnified by Maximoff’s little vision and stayed with him so strongly that Tony could practically taste it.
“What’s coming?” Strange asked, very quietly.
So, Tony told him about Thanos and about how the army that had invaded Earth was just the tip of an iceberg that ran miles deep beneath the surface. He was brutally honest about Thanos’s desire for the stones and could see the moment that broke through to Strange when Strange’s face paled. They stared at each other for a moment, the grim knowledge of what that could mean hanging between them.
“We’ve already destroyed the Mind Stone,” Tony said. “So Thanos can’t get all of the stones now even if he wanted them. But each stone in itself is still incredibly powerful, so we’re trying to destroy as many as we can before Thanos gets here.”
Strange stiffened and took an instinctive set back, hand lifting to touch the heavy necklace around his throat. “You want me to give you the Time Stone so that you can destroy it.”
“That’s right,” Tony said.
“My job is to protect the Time Stone,” Strange said. “By destroying them, you could be throwing the universe out of balance.”
“Thanos is going to try to kill us all anyway. I’d rather take my chances by destroying the stones,” Tony replied. “I’m not here to fight if that’s what you’re thinking. I came here as a fellow defender of Earth… someone who is trying to protect as many people as I can.”
“You’re working with Loki,” Strange pointed out. “Who wants to rule Earth. Who has already killed dozens of people.”
“He was brainwashed by Thanos and the Mind Stone,” Tony said quietly. “I don’t necessarily expect you to believe that, but it’s the truth.” He lifted his head, looking Strange in the eye. “I’m working with Loki to try and mitigate potential losses on all fronts. Right now, the biggest worry that we have is Thanos. Regardless of what you think about Loki, you can’t deny that.”
Strange was frowning. “No, but I also can’t deny that if we destroy all the stones and stop Thanos it would be very easy for Loki to sweep in and take over.”
Tony shrugged. Honestly, he couldn’t argue against that. He wasn’t about to share this with Strange, but a part of him was beginning to look forward to that day. He would fight to the death to protect the Earth, but it would be wonderful if he didn’t have to do that anymore. Fighting was hard and wore you down, and there was just so much responsibility to go along with it, and Tony was so very, very tired of it all sometimes.
“Bottom line is, we’re going to destroy that Time Stone one way or the other. We can’t have Thanos going back in time to rewrite things,” Tony said, suddenly exhausted. “You’d be a good ally, Strange. I’d really rather that we didn’t have to fight you for it. Please think seriously about working with us, not against us.”
He walked past Strange, who said nothing, and saw himself out.
James stared at his breakfast and contemplated following Tony. He wasn’t going to lie about that. And he would even have a decent excuse, because Tony had never actually said that he didn’t want James to accompany him. Instead, as James had noticed happened a lot when Tony grew uncomfortable, Tony had subtly changed the subject and made it sound like he was worried about Strange.
“FRI, what do you think? Should I go after him?” James asked, leaning his head on his hand.
FRIDAY was quiet for a moment, then said, “Based on my frame of reference, I suggest that you don’t. JARVIS says that he can let you know when Boss is leaving Dr. Strange’s sanctum, if you would prefer to meet up with Boss at that time.”
“That would be good,” James said, deciding that that sounded like a fair compromise. Plus, it meant that he got to eat his breakfast. After seventy-some years of being fed through a tube, a hot meal had not lost its appeal. He suspected that it probably never would.
“Boss says that I have been assigned to you,” FRIDAY announced unexpectedly, just as James was lifting the first forkful to his mouth. He paused.
“Tony said that?”
“Yes. Boss prefers the help of JARVIS,” FRIDAY explained. “He doesn’t need two A.I.’s assigned solely to him. So I will take care of you, and maybe Loki. Boss said to ask you about that.”
“Uh,” James said intelligently, blinking. It wasn’t often that something caught him off guard. He was pretty damn good at reading both a room and individual people. Skills like that were important for an assassin. He had only improved since being with Loki, since it hadn’t taken James long to realize that Loki wasn’t good at reading people. That was what happened when you got too beguiled in lies, James supposed. But he’d never minded that; he liked the feeling of being useful, and, if that was what Loki needed him for, it was a position that James was more than happy to fill.
He supposed that it made sense in retrospect. Tony had clearly been pining after JARVIS. Now that he had JARVIS back, it was reasonable that FRIDAY had been effectively bumped. Rather than just shut her down, like most people would have, Tony had opted to reassign her. That was Tony’s soft heart at play. James smiled to himself and fondly shook his head. He would never understand how anyone could think that Tony was cruel.
“Let me talk to Loki about that one,” he said. Loki seemed to regard the A.I.’s as a form of magic. James wasn’t sure if Loki would find them useful or not.
“Okay,” FRIDAY said. She remained silent as James finished off his breakfast and stood, dumping the dirty dishes into the sink. He would wash them later.
For now, he ducked back into his bedroom and pulled on a dark, ratty sweatshirt and a baseball cap. It wasn’t the best disguise, obviously, but no one would be looking for the Winter Solider in downtown New York. But just as an extra precautionary measure, James grabbed the pendant that Loki had given him. When he wore it around his neck, it projected an illusion of a middle aged man with red hair, brown eyes, a beard, and a tall, stocky build.
He slid the pendant on and headed out, deciding not to wait for JARVIS. As it turned out, that was a very wise move on his part.
James found his way to the New York sanctum just as Tony was emerging. He hadn’t had the chance to show Tony his pendant yet, so Tony’s eyes slid right over him as just another face in the crowd as Tony turned right to head back towards the tower. James maneuvered his way through the crowd, already thinking about coaxing Tony into a walk through Central Park –
And then he stopped dead. All of his senses went on high alert as he watched the woman walking in the same direction as Tony. James zeroed in on her, catching a glimpse of dark hair beneath the hood of her sweatshirt. She was small and thin, easily lost amongst the crowds of New York unless you knew exactly what to look for. And James, who had seen more than his fair share of highly trained agents, knew immediately that he was not looking at your average civilian.
She was following Tony. That certainty settled deep into his bones as he watched Tony duck into a small café. The woman lingered out front, pretending to be fascinated by a news stand, until Tony came back out carrying a cup of what was no doubt coffee. To the casual observer, Tony seemed to be lost in his own world as he meandered back up the sidewalk sipping at his coffee.
But James knew better. Tony had proven that he was always aware of the people surrounding him; he suspected that came from several years of being encircled by people who used Tony for his fame and money with very little care for Tony himself. The multiple kidnapping attempts probably hadn’t helped. James’s metal hand slowly curled into a fist. He would be damned if there was yet another attempt on Tony’s life while he was there.
The woman was good. Smart. Too smart to be Hydra. Those idiots wouldn’t have been capable of following someone for thirty seconds, never mind for a full ten minutes. But she wasn’t smart enough to realize that James was following her. In all the time she was tailing Tony, she never once looked over her shoulder. He rolled his eyes and decided to end the farce, speeding up.
Just as Tony rounded the corner, James came up behind the woman and smoothly slid an arm around her neck. He jerked her sideways into a convenient alley – that was one of the things he liked so much about New York. That, and the fact that so many people were oblivious. No one noticed or even glanced their way. He made sure of it, holding the woman in place with an iron grip while looking at the mouth of the alley.
When it became clear that no one was going to interfere, he released his prey. She spun away from him with an outraged look, the hood of her sweatshirt sliding down to reveal long blond hair. No wonder she’d hidden it. Hair like that would make her easy to remember. James crossed his arms over his chest, standing between her and the mouth of the alley. Her eyes briefly darted past him, then back to his face. She was weighing the odds, he knew. She’d get a nasty surprise if she tried to get past.
“Who the hell are you? If you don’t let me go, I’ll scream,” she threatened.
“Go ahead. I’m sure the police would love to know why you were following Tony Stark,” James replied.
She stilled, which gave her away, even as she said, “What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah right,” James scoffed, taking a step closer. She backed up and a shaft of sunlight fell across her face, illuminating pale skin and brown eyes. He paused, caught off guard by a pang of familiarity. He didn’t recognize her, yet he still felt as though he had seen her somewhere before.
“Don’t come any closer!” she warned, throwing up a hand. “I mean it!”
“Why, cause you’re packing a knife? And a gun?” James said, shaking off the moment of déja vu to give her a good, hard scan. There was the odd bulge at her side that told of a gun. He could also see a thin outline against her right thigh that was a knife. It wouldn’t have surprised him if she had a secondary gun hidden at her ankle. Not that any of it was going to do her any good.
This time, she was the one who paused. Her eyes narrowed. “Who the hell are you?”
James gave her a smile, knowing that there was no way she would be able to see through his disguise. “Just an interested party wanting to know why you were following Stark around.”
“Since when does Stark hire ex-military?” she shot back.
“Since now,” James said, not bothering to correct her. He amused himself for a moment thinking that, if he let her go, she would run back to her superiors and they would all drive themselves crazy trying to find a red-haired man in his mid-forties who had worked for the military.
“So you’re a bodyguard. Part of his security team,” she said, more to herself than him.
“Sure,” James said with a shrug. “And my boss doesn’t take kindly to people following him.” He smirked inwardly. Tony would probably sputter in that adorable way of his if he knew James had been referring to him as ‘boss’.
She stared at him for a long moment, then scowled. “Fine, you caught me. My… superiors were curious about what Stark has been up to since the Avengers broke up. They wanted me to gather intel on him and then report back. People will know that I’m missing.” She thrust a pointed chin into the air like she wasn’t scared of him, even though James could tell that was bullshit. She was trying to be calm, but he’d rattled her. Good.
“Oh, will they?” James said mildly. “Too bad for you I don’t really care if they notice whether you’re missing or not. No one threatens Stark. Not on my watch.”
He could see the second when it dawned on her. She grabbed for her gun, which was a mistake. He launched himself forward, moving way too fast for a normal human to even process, and easily knocked the gun out of her hand. He followed it up with a pinch to the right place in her neck. She crumbled like wet paper, unconscious before she hit the ground at his feet.
“You are pathetic,” James told her body, rolling his eyes. He suspected she was FBI, maybe CIA or even SHIELD. He knelt down, quickly searching her body until he came across a wallet. Opening it up revealed a driver’s license.
James rocked back on his heels, shocked, as he realized why she had looked familiar. Sharon Carter. Shit, this was the woman that had given Steve’s shield back to him while they were on the run. This was Peggy Carter’s great niece. He never met her face-to-face, had only seen Sharon at a distance when she was speaking to Steve, but she had the same nose, cheekbones and full mouth as Peggy.
“Shit. What the hell are you doing here?” he muttered, closing her wallet. He knew now that she worked for the CIA, but that she had prior ties to SHIELD. Had the CIA sent her here? SHEILD? Was she in contact with Steve?
That last thought made James’s stomach churn anxiously, and he automatically grabbed for the pendant around his neck to make sure that it was still there. Not that Sharon was going anywhere, but in the event that she escaped he didn’t want her running back to Steve to tell him that she’d seen James Barnes in downtown New York. That would cause a lot more mayhem than James was ready for.
He hadn’t intended to leave her here, but now he knew for sure that he couldn’t. His instincts told him that there was more to this situation than mere surveillance. He leaned down and grabbed Sharon around the waist, easily tossing her over his shoulder – she felt like she weighed nothing. Then he sauntered out of the alley and rejoined the crowd, heading towards the tower.
A few people looked at him quizzically. James gave them his cockiest smile and said, “Long night at the bars”. In every instance, any concern or curiosity immediately switched to judgement and he was permitted to go on his way. He made it back to the tower in less than fifteen minutes, though he took an extra five minutes to go around back and take that entrance instead of walking in the front door.
“Hey FRI,” he said as the elevator doors slid shut behind him.
“Yes?” FRIDAY asked. “Would you like me to tell Boss you have an unexpected guest?”
“No,” James said. Not until he knew what Sharon was after. “I just need you to gather all the information Tony has on Sharon Carter and compile it for me.”
“Consider it done,” FRIDAY said immediately.
“Thanks.” He shifted Sharon’s weight, tapping his foot. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too long until Loki returned. Sharon would’ve been trained to resist all of the basic interrogation methods, but Loki’s powers always made getting answers a lot easier.
Sharon Elizabeth Carter was in her early thirties. Born in May 1986, she was the youngest granddaughter of Peggy Carter’s older brother, Michael. James flicked through the holograms of the information that FRIDAY had gathered for him and read that Sharon’s parents were Harrison Junior Carter and Michelle Carter, née Webbison, and that Sharon had two older siblings, both brothers. One of the brothers, Harrison III, had joined the NYPD, while the other, Greg, had moved to Japan a long time ago.
“Little sister complex, maybe,” James muttered, leaning back in his chair. For sure, based on what Rogers had said, Carter had a big complex when it came to her great-grandmother. To the point that only those of the highest rank in SHEILD had been aware that Agent 13 was even related to Peggy Carter. That was public knowledge now though, after Natasha Romanov had dumped so many of SHIELD’s files on the internet.
He continued to look through the information, reading about how Sharon had excelled at both school and athletics. A gifted child, she’d obtained several scholarships and eventually got accepted into Princeton University, where she had majored in Global Policy and Administration. Things got significantly murkier after that, which was when James assumed she’d made contact with SHIELD.
And then he caught sight of something that made him stop.
“Wait. Is that -?!”
“That would be a picture of Boss and Agent Carter, circa January 1992,” FRIDAY said helpfully.
James stared at the photo with wide eyes. That would’ve put Sharon at about five to six years old, and Tony at about twenty-two years old. In the picture, Sharon was kneeling on the muddy ground in a pair of old jeans and a plaid button-up that was way too big for her. Her hair was pulled back in two messy pigtails. Her broad smile showed off three missing teeth.
Tony stood behind her, a plate of cake in his hand. He looked so young. Too young. Strung out and thin, he was wearing a suit that hung off his shoulders. He wasn’t smiling, and the dark sunglasses he was wearing concealed eyes that were probably puffy and bloodshot. If James remembered correctly, this picture would’ve been taken only a few months after the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark. His chest felt tight at the realization.
He had caused that pain in Tony’s face.
“I didn’t realize Tony and Sharon knew each other,” James said, hoping FRIDAY couldn’t discern the shakiness in his voice.
“Perhaps I can answer that question.”
“JARVIS,” James said, surprised.
“Sir and Ms. Carter were close when Ms. Carter was young, but after Sir’s parents died, Obadiah Stane began trying to isolate Sir from the world. Particularly from those who cared about him,” JARVIS explained. “Not long after that, Ms. Carter decided that she was tired of living in the shadow of her great-aunt. She began going by her mother’s maiden name, and refused to have anything to do with Sir in public. I believe it’s been years since she and Sir saw each other, until now.”
Stane. James ground his teeth together at the name, but didn’t let himself get distracted. “So Tony doesn’t have much of a connection to her?”
“I believe not. However, Peggy Carter was Sir’s godmother. Sir continued to visit her until shortly before she died. His visits stopped when the nursing home asked him not to return,” JARVIS said quietly.
“Why did they do that?!” James demanded indignantly.
“It seems that was right around the time that Captain Rogers began visiting her. Seeing Captain Rogers made Peggy Carter believe she was back in the 1940’s. Apparently, she was at odds with Howard Stark for much of that time. She began to believe that Tony was Howard, and frequently grew upset whenever Tony visited after that,” JARVIS replied.
James clenched his hand into a fist. Just one more thing that Steve Rogers had unwittingly stolen from Tony. He couldn’t believe the nursing home had asked Tony not to return! If anything, it was Steve who should’ve been asked not to come back. By that point, Tony had way more of a connection to Peggy than Steve did. And of course, knowing Tony, he would’ve bowed out without so much as a word of argument, just because it was easier for everyone else.
“Loki has returned!” FRIDAY chirped before James could collect himself enough to ask his next question, and James sagged with relief.
“Please fill him in, FRI,” he requested, already turning towards the door.
He didn’t need to ask if FRIDAY had done just that when Loki swept through the doors moments later. Loki’s eyes were alight with rage, practically burning with green fire, and the sight of it made all of the tension that had built up in James’s body just… melt away. He’d grown to love that look, because he knew that it meant Loki was going to tear apart heaven and earth to make things right.
“I hear we have a guest,” Loki said. With one glance, he knew exactly what James needed and held his arms out. More relieved than James could say, he willingly went to Loki and let himself be gathered close. He rested his head on Loki’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
“Her name is Sharon Carter. I don’t know why she’s here, but it scares me,” James mumbled. Those weren’t words he would’ve spoken to anyone but Loki or Tony.
“There’s no need to be scared. I know exactly what we’re going to do with her,” Loki said. He kept one arm wrapped around James, but reached the other out to touch Sharon’s ankle. A cool feeling enveloped James; he blinked, and the next thing he knew they were no longer in the tower but in a hotel room that he didn’t recognize. He looked around in confusion.
“Wait, where are we?”
“Her hotel room,” Loki replied. “I swore to Tony that I would never allow the witch back in the tower, and we are going to use her powers to figure out what this spy has been doing.”
“That’s perfect,” James said with a smirk. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten about Wanda, but of course she was the perfect instrument to get into Sharon’s head.
Loki waved a hand and Wanda appeared. Her expression was completely blank, but James knew that behind those dead eyes was a screaming witch going mad within her confinement. Yet he didn’t feel bad for her. He’d seen what she’d done to so many innocent people, all in the name of ‘practicing’. Wanda Maximoff deserved a lot worse than what she was going through right now. At least her ‘torture’ had been relatively painless.
“Witch, you will use your powers on Sharon Carter. I want to know why she is here,” Loki commanded.
Instantly, Maximoff lifted a hand and red mist flowed from her fingers and began seeping into Sharon’s head. In a dull, monotone voice, Maximoff said, “It seems that Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, and Clint Barton noticed that I didn’t return from my last visit with the Vision. They grew suspicious that something had happened to me and have been scouring the news trying to figure out if I was captured.”
“If they thought something had happened, why the hell would they sent Sharon after Tony?” James demanded. “That makes no sense.”
“They believe that Stark kept the truth of the matter from the media,” Maximoff replied. “Rogers contacted Carter and asked Carter to do some checking up on Stark.”
“Fuck!” James swore, fear and anger mingling into a tight ball in his chest. That had been exactly what he was afraid of.
“Steady,” Loki said to him without looking away from Maximoff. To her, he ordered, “What has she learned so far?”
“Just that Stark went to visit Strange. Today was Carter’s first day doing reconnaissance,” Maximoff said.
Loki nodded and turned to James. “You need to calm yourself,” he said, and it wasn’t a suggestion. “Rogers knows nothing. This is the act of a desperate man attempting to get information. James, listen to me.”
James looked up at him, but didn’t speak. He felt hot and shaky in a way that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. Steve Rogers was the only one capable of doing that to him. Truth be told, Rogers scared him. He wanted so badly for James to be someone that was dead. The thought of having to pretend to be Bucky Barnes again made him feel like he was drowning.
“You will never have to be anything that you don’t want to be. You are enough for me, and for Tony,” Loki said softly, but intently. “Did you not say the same thing to me when I was concerned about Thor and Odin?”
“Y-yeah,” James said, wrapping his arms around himself. “I… I guess so?”
“And you would say the same thing to Tony,” Loki said. He stepped closer, laying his hands on James’s shoulders. His magic was a cool, pulsing feeling that ran across James’s skin in waves. He leaned into it, savoring the sensation, pulling it into himself to help him calm down.
“What are we going to do?” he whispered, because he knew Loki would have the answer.
“We are going to send scrub the witch’s mind of everything that has happened and return her to her friends. She will have to come up with some excuse for her whereabouts.” A faint smirk crossed Loki’s face. “Perhaps an excuse that will make her look poorly in their eyes, like consorting with Hydra. You could lay some false evidence to make them think that way, couldn’t you? Discrediting and ridiculing her will drive her away from them and right back into our grasp.”
James considered that, then nodded. “It wouldn’t be too hard. I can do that.”
“Of course you can,” Loki said, a glint of pride in his eyes. “But first, we should take this opportunity while we have it. Carter has been in contact with Rogers, so we should learn everything she knows. Even something that means nothing to us might have an impact on Tony.”
Under Loki’s orders, Maximoff continued searching deep into Carter’s brain. Most of what she said, they already knew. James was well aware that Rogers was hiding in Wakanda with Romanov, Barton, Wilson and Lang, and he also knew that T’Challa knew they were there – they were living in the palace for god’s sake! It would’ve been pretty hard for the king not to know.
“All of this is superficial stuff. Unless she can go back further, it’s not helpful,” James said finally, after listening to Maximoff announce that Carter’s superiors had not been aware that she was in contact with Rogers – though he did file that bit of information away. Maybe that would be an easy way of dealing with Carter, depending on what Loki had in store for her.
“Go deeper,” Loki said, squeezing James’s shoulder in unspoken approval. “Search for anything pertaining to Rogers or James Barnes.”
“Or Peggy Carter. Anything that’s not public information,” James said in a burst of insight. All he knew about her was what had been mentioned in Sharon Carter’s file, and what little Rogers had said – but there had to be way more to the story, and this was a prime opportunity to find out what her great-grand-niece knew that hadn’t been released to the general public.
Maximoff was quiet for a moment. The red mist from her hands intensified, and Carter let out of a moan of pain. Then Maximoff said, “Peggy Carter helped to cover up the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark.”
“What?” James said, head snapping up.
“The SSR was called to the accident that night,” Maximoff said, still in that monotone. “Howard Stark was transporting a version of the Super Soldier Serum that he had created. The Winter Soldier was sent to stop him.”
James flinched at the reminder, hot guilt bubbling up in his chest. Loki’s grip in his shoulder tightened.
“Afterwards, the SSR removed the footage of that night and locked it away. Carter was the head of that operation,” Maximoff said.
“She hid the truth from Tony?” James breathed, shocked.
“Who is Peggy Carter?” Loki said, sounding puzzled.
“Tony’s godmother. We – we have to tell him,” James said. “He deserves to know.”
Loki’s eyes flashed. “His godmother?” he repeated dangerously. “Where is this woman?”
“She’s dead. She died last year,” James replied – which was lucky for Peggy, because the subject of parents, or any parental figure, lying to children was an extraordinarily touchy subject for Loki.
“Let’s get whatever else we can, and then we’ll talk to Tony,” Loki said. They shared a worried glance, both of them wondering how Tony would take this new bit of information. Not well, James suspected. Tony was so fragile right now. James hoped that this wouldn’t be the last straw that broke him.
It was James who told him. Every word felt like a pebble being flicked against Tony's skin: not painful by itself, but carving new wounds when put together. He sat in silence for a moment when James was finished, trying to wrap his mind around the information. Sharon Carter had been following him, sent by none other than Captain America, and Tony hadn't even realized. Not only that, but James and Loki had used Maximoff to find out what she knew. And in doing so, they had accidentally stumbled across the source behind one of the greatest cover-ups in American history.
"Tony?" James said, sounding more nervous the longer Tony was quiet. "Should I not have said anything?" He glanced up at Loki, who set a hand on James's shoulder without speaking. Both of them stared at Tony.
"No," Tony said instantly. "I wanted to know. I don't -" It was too hard to put into words, but the thought of anything being kept from him now was unbearable. He couldn't imagine how he would've felt six months from now if he'd found out that James and Loki had known and hadn't told him. It would've sent Tony straight back to Siberia and that awful moment when he'd looked Captain America in the eyes and known that Tony wasn't worth the truth.
"Okay. That's okay," James said softly, eyebrows creasing in concern.
"I have to - yeah." Tony stood and hastily walked out of the room. He wouldn't have called it fleeing exactly, but he suddenly felt as though he couldn't bear to sit there under those two scrutinizing gazes for another moment. It was like they were looking for the cracks in him, and every second Tony sat there was another second that those cracks widened and the chasm in his heart grew. He headed for the elevator and the workshop.
Peggy. Peggy Carter. She was his godmother, but Tony hadn't known her as well as he might've hoped. She and Howard had an on again, off again sort of friendship, wherein Howard would do something stupid or insulting, Peggy would get pissed, and they wouldn't speak for a significant period of time. Then one morning Tony would get up and Peggy would be at the breakfast table having morning tea with Maria. He had a vivid memory of coming around the corner and seeing the two women sitting there, both perfectly coiffed, bright lipstick stains against their tea cups.
The memory made him feel sick now. Peggy was Howard's friend. Maria's friend. How could she have denied them justice? No wonder she hadn't come to their funerals. Young Tony Stark had bought the excuse that Peggy had business on the other side of the world without blinking an eye. Why wouldn't he? Howard had fed him the same bullshit excuse enough times. He'd ended up sitting through the funerals with only Obadiah Stane and the flash of a thousand press cameras for company.
After that, the Carter family had started pulling away from Tony. He slowly but surely saw less of them, until finally years were going by and he didn't hear from them. Peggy's visits became less frequent too. She'd played it off like she was disappointed in the man Tony had become, what with the drinking and drugs and copious amounts of sex acts, but now Tony wondered if it was because Peggy's own guilt made it too hard to face him. Or maybe that was just what he wanted to believe. Maybe Peggy'd had no problem at all looking in him in the face, knowing what she'd done. Maybe she was just like every other godforsaken agent Tony had ever met, only caring about themselves and their own agenda.
A sudden flash of fury lit him from the inside out. Tony stormed into the workshop and grabbed a sledgehammer. Ostensibly he kept it around for when he needed to get rid of some of the larger dents in the armor. Unofficially, he kept it around for moments like this when the rage welling up inside of him was so potent that he had to let it out somehow or risk drowning in it. He made his way over to a pile of scrap metal, swung the sledgehammer back, and let it fly against the pile as hard as he could. The resulting clang made his teeth ache and his arms shake.
Clang! How could she?
Clang! Didn't his mother deserve better?
Clang! How Peggy ever cared about him at all?
Clang! Was that really why she used to call him Howard, not Tony?
Clang! Had she ever planned to tell him the truth?
Clang! Did no one besides Tony care about Maria Stark?
Clang! Would he ever find anyone who cared enough to not betray him?
At that last thought, sharp grief mingled with the anger burning brightly inside of Tony's chest. A choked sob burst out of him as he swung the sledgehammer again. It hurt. It hurt so much that he didn't know how he was supposed to stand it. He was so fucking tired of people using him and lying to him. Tired of being used as an unknowing or unwitting pawn. Tired of learning about the truth and not being able to do anything about it. Tired of feeling like he was alone and adrift in the world after giving everything he had to give, with nothing and no one who would spare a thought for him.
He hit the metal over and over, until his shoulders were burning with fatigue and his breaths were coming in shallow gasps - though whether that was from the effort he was putting forth or the tears he was holding back, that was up from debate. He staggered after one hit, the force of it nearly knocking him off his feet. He stared at the badly dented scrap metal dazedly, then tightened his grip around the handle. Spreading his feet to better brace himself, he summoned what remained of his strength and hefted the sledgehammer again. One more hit and then he could collapse -
"Hey, stop," James breathed in his ear, right before the sledgehammer was plucked out of Tony's hands.
Tony swung around, angry all over again, but found himself facing Loki, not James. He stopped, shocked motionless, and stared at Loki for a moment. He was unprepared for Loki to flick his fingers. Suddenly, green bands of magic wound around Tony's wrists and ankles: his wrists were jerked together and shackled in front of him, and his ankles were yanked together similarly. He would've fallen flat on his face had Loki not caught him up, arms skimming over Tony's shoulders before sliding across his back, pressing down firmly as Loki pulled him into a hug.
"Let go of me!" Tony snarled immediately, trying to jerk away. But trying to fight against Loki was like trying to punch through a cement wall when he wasn’t wearing the suit. Impossible.
“Pet,” Loki said, voice low. Usually the nickname made Tony feel warm. Right now, it just made him angry.
He struggled furiously, wrenching his arms and legs to the point of pain. “I said let go! Damn it, Loki!”
“No,” Loki said simply, pulling back to look at him. James hovered nervously in the background.
“Fuck you!” Tony exploded. “Fuck both of you to hell! Everyone just thinks they can do whatever the fuck they want to me, without giving me any fucking regard, and I’m fucking sick of it! It’s not fair!” He wrenched his shoulders from side to side. “Don’t think you can just slap my ass and make it better!”
“What you need,” Loki said, still quietly, “is not more pain.”
That sentence jarred something loose in Tony’s chest. He opened his mouth to let out another furious torrent of words, but what came out was a sob. Suddenly he was crying, which was mortifying because he couldn’t run away or even cover his face. He ducked his shoulders and bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut out of embarrassment as more sobs rattled through him.
“Why don’t they care?” he cried. “Why doesn’t anyone care?!”
Loki surged forward and hugged him again. “We care, Pet,” he murmured. “Shh.”
“We’re here, Darling.” There was a firm presence against Tony’s back then, James hugging him from behind.
Tony let his head sink down onto Loki’s shoulder, helpless, and sobbed because he couldn’t do anything else. All of his anger and rage had fled, leaving him feeling empty as he thought about his parents and all the people who had conspired to keep the true nature of their deaths a secret. All the people who had conspired against Tony. He was so sick of people not taking him into consideration.
Because they all thought that he was just a stupid, silly playboy who didn’t matter, but Tony was more than that. He wanted to be more than that. He’d thought he was more than that. Peggy, Stane, Steve… the list of people who had lied to Tony’s face while pretending to care seemed to grow longer every day, and Tony didn’t know how much longer he could bear it.
He cried until he couldn’t cry anymore, until he was hanging limply in their arms and he couldn’t even find it in himself to be embarrassed anymore. Numbness sank in, and he felt as though he was watching everything from a distance as Loki pulled back just far enough to wipe some of the tears from Tony’s face. There were new shadows in Loki’s eyes that hadn’t been there before, burning low like coals in a banked fire, and the idle thought that humanity was probably fucked now floated across Tony’s mind.
He didn’t care. He couldn’t care. He had nothing left.
“James, let’s take our pet upstairs,” Loki said. “Take him into the shower, would you? Bathe him.”
James nodded and effortlessly scooped Tony into his arms, bridal style. Tony hung limply, not protesting, as James carried him out of the room. He didn’t know where Loki went, but James took Tony up to their floor and into the bathroom. FRIDAY or JARVIS had already started the shower by the time they got there; James set Tony down on the toilet and removed his clothing. Said clothing passed effortlessly through the green magic that kept Tony restrained, yet the magic held fast when Tony tried to get free.
That was okay. Tony found he didn’t mind the restraints as much now. They were even comforting, in a way, as a visual reminder that Loki had him. He could rant, scream, throw things, destroy things, even fuck up beyond repair, and Loki would still have him. He stared at the green bands dully as James lifted him into the shower and set about cleaning them both up.
The warm water was nice, and James’s hands on his body even better. Tony was able to close his eyes and just float as James used a loofah to soap them both down, then rinsed them clean. James’s touch was gentle, indulgent, and and he treated Tony like he was something precious. Something fragile. Something worth protecting. It was a novel feeling.
When they were both clean, the water shut off and James lifted him out of the tub. He took a towel and dried Tony off, then carried him into the bedroom. Loki was already there with a tray of food and bottles of water. He lifted a hand and the green bands around Tony’s ankles vanished. Reacting to the implied command, James stopped and carefully set Tony on his feet.
“Pet,” Loki said. “Come here.”
Tony’s legs were weak from exhaustion and emotion, but he found himself moving regardless. His feet carried him over to Loki. He searched Loki’s face as he approached – the distance was only a few feet, but it felt so much longer – but could see no sign of anything negative directed Tony’s way. There was only something soft and tender that Tony couldn’t put a name to.
“Kneel,” Loki commanded, but gently, as Tony reached him.
Without conscious thought, Tony’s legs folded and he fell to his knees without taking his eyes off of Loki. A small splinter of warmth permeated the numbness when Loki gave an approving smile at his action. Tony closed his eyes as Loki reached down to pet his hair, long fingers lightly massaging Tony’s scalp. He knew exactly how Tony liked to be touched.
“You’re so good, my pet,” Loki murmured. “No one else understands… but we do. Shh, now. James and I are here, and we won’t let anything else happen to you.”
James hung back as Tony melted into Loki’s hands. He’d always liked seeing the two of them like this, and this was the first time he was getting chance to see it in person as opposed to within a dream. Loki was tall and slender and pale. Tony, on the other hand, was skinny, on the shorter side, and surprisingly tan considering that he didn’t often spend time outside. The dichotomy of the two of them together was mesmerizing.
It was kind of amazing, James reflected, that Loki seemed to know exactly how to treat him and Tony. Their needs were so different. For example, James enjoyed pain. He loved it when Loki took a whip or a paddle to his ass. Though Hydra had frequently been needlessly cruel, Loki’s delivery of pain always came with an undercoating of affection. The sting of the whip, followed by the touch of that cool hand or the whisper of Loki’s voice, grounded James in the moment far better than anything else could.
But then there was Tony, and Loki had been so right when he said that Tony had faced enough pain in his life. One more blow, physical or no, might break Tony Stark into a million irreparable pieces. What Tony seemed to love was gentle touches, praises, and being bound. He’d struggled against Loki’s magic before, but that was a result of his meltdown. He loved confinement, whether it was James or Loki holding his wrists or being bound.
Perhaps that was how Tony grounded himself. Knowing that he couldn’t spin out of control, knowing that someone else was watching over you and holding onto that control – James could see how that would be appealing, even if the thought of someone putting James back into restraints made an ugly shiver roll down his spine. Loki had never tied him up; James always held still, giving his submission as a free choice. Tony needed it to be taken.
And that’s exactly what Loki was doing as he stroked his hands over Tony’s hair and shoulders, telling Tony how good he was, what a sweet boy, that he was safe here. Tony soaked up the words as easily as he did the affection, nuzzling into Loki’s hands like a touch-starved kitten. Frankly, that comparison probably wasn’t as far off as it should have been.
“I just don’t –” Tony whispered, drawing James’s attention back to him immediately. The green bands of magic faded away from his wrists as he spoke. Tony wrapped one of his hands around his opposite wrist, shivering.
“Shh,” Loki said, placing a finger to Tony’s lips. Tony quieted and let his head roll forward, though his shoulders still shook. Loki glanced up and caught James’s eye. James understood and moved forward, kneeling on the ground behind Tony. He set his hands on Tony’s back, wondering if Tony felt the difference between his flesh hand and his metal hand.
“You’re okay, Darlin’,” James said, letting a hint of a drawl slip into his voice.
“It’s just…” Tony exhaled and bit his lip, making a low, desperate sound, and James knew it had to be really bad if Tony couldn’t even drum up the words anymore. It wasn’t like Tony to go completely silent; that was more something that James did than Tony, so this was worrying. He looked up at Loki pleadingly, begging without words for Loki to fix the situation, and Loki’s face softened further.
“I, too, was betrayed,” he said, as though imparting on them a great secret. And it felt like he was, because even James didn’t know much about Loki’s past. He knew that Loki had been brainwashed by Thanos to attack New York, and he knew that Loki wanted to conquer the planet – but not what, other than Thanos, had driven Loki to that point. It had never seemed all that important that he find out. Now that Loki was freely offering the information up, James realized that he desperately wanted to know.
He went up on his knees and shuffled closer to Tony, sliding an arm around Tony’s waist. He was sure that they presented a sight, two naked men kneeling before their god, and he could tell the effect that they were having on Loki. Though tempered by affection, there was both lust and desire in Loki’s eyes too. Two different things, one completely physical and the other both mental and emotional. But James knew that Loki didn’t need to desire them; he already had them.
“Odin,” Loki said gravely, cupping Tony’s cheek with one hand. “He stole me from my birthright when I was a baby and raised me to believe he was my father. He was a poor substitute, always favoring my – Thor.” A muscle in his jaw twitched before he sighed. “I was never good enough in his eyes. When I realized what had happened, I was very angry. I tried to destroy the planet where I was born, and I tried to kill both Thor and Odin.”
“But you didn’t?” James said. He knew of Thor but couldn’t recall meeting the Avenger. Loki had often described Thor as a great, golden puppy, incapable of true anger. Whether that description was true or not, James realized that they would someday find out. Surely, when someone on Asgard realized what Tony was planning, Thor would be sent to deal with it.
“Thor stopped me,” Loki confessed. His eyes went distant, as though he was looking at something inward. “I fell from the bridge… Thanos caught me. I don’t remember much from his time. Only what happened once his control was gone.” He blinked, looking at Tony. “I have you to thank for that, my pet. Without your ferocity, I would still be a brainwashed peon. No one, not even my beloved brother, realized that I was brainwashed.” His voice was filled with bitterness. “When Thor took me back to Asgard, Odin sentenced me to life imprisonment for my crimes.”
James made an indignant sound, feeling Tony tense slightly. “Didn’t he care that you had been brainwashed?”
Loki’s smile was slow. “My James, Odin cared very little for what happened on Earth period,” he replied. “Odin was angry about my actions on Asgard. I nearly killed him and his favored son. I wanted the planet for myself, and Odin didn’t approve of that. In his eyes, I’m not good enough for anything.”
Tony lifted his head at that, nuzzling his head into Loki’s hand. Softly, he professed, “You’re good enough for us.”
“Yes,” Loki breathed, voice bathed in tenderness. “My good boys. I have lost interest in Asgard. Such a backwards planet, mired in centuries of hidden bloodlust, empty promises, and a gilded history written by the winners. Earth, on the other hand, is so much more… interesting. Together, the three of us will discard your world’s leaders and take the planet for ourselves.”
James smiled in pleasure. “And factions like Hydra would be burnt out in the process,” he affirmed, hugging Tony in his glee. Honestly, he had long since passed the point where he cared for many other people. So long as Hydra was destroyed and James, and Tony and Loki, were safe, he didn’t much care for anyone else. Hydra’s treatment had frozen that ability right out of him.
“Of course. I won’t have anyone going against us,” Loki said. “They’re useless to us and our goals. You’ve doing an excellent job destroying them, James.” He gave James an approving look, and James glowed a bit.
“I can help,” Tony whispered, and they both looked at him. He shyly ducked their gazes, speaking to the floor. “JARVIS and FRIDAY… they can help you find out more about Hydra.”
“That would be great,” James said. “I didn’t think of that.” He felt a little silly for not having thought of it, honestly. Tony’s A.I.’s were something legendary, spoken of in hushed circles amongst even the smartest scientists that James had encountered. He didn’t fully understand what they were capable of, but it made sense that they would be able to ferret out pockets of Hydra.
Tony’s head rose and he turned to James, eyes strangely intent. “Really?”
“Really what?” James said, puzzled.
“You didn’t think of it?” Tony repeated, and James didn’t really understand what he meant until Loki spoke.
“It’s true that you and your tools are of use to us, my pet. But we are not going to use your resources and then throw you away when convenient,” Loki murmured. “What is yours, you may freely give if you desire. I will not demand of you the way that others have.”
The way that the Avengers had, James filled in. It made him angry to think about how selfish Steve Rogers and the others had been. None of them had treated Tony as a person, but as a commodity that was there to be used when appropriate and discarded when not. It was no wonder that Tony was so very hesitant to trust, given how many times the rug had been pulled out from underneath him.
“I want to,” Tony said. “I –” He looked up at Loki. “Please, put them back?”
Loki’s eyes widened slightly. Again, James didn’t understand. Not until Loki removed his hand from Tony’s cheek and reached down to stroke his fingers across Tony’s proffered wrists. The green bands of magic reappeared but changed, shrinking and solidifying into fine gold chain bracelets. They lay delicately across Tony’s skin, dotted with green gems at the tip of each link – emeralds, James thought, though he could have been mistaken. The one on Tony’s left wrist extended across the back of his hand to a ring on Tony’s middle finger, turning it into a panja bracelet. The one on his right wrist lay snugly against the wristwatch gauntlet Tony always wore.
Tony relaxed as soon as the bracelets were on, the tension melting out of him so quickly that he would’ve fallen over had James not had an arm wrapped around him. James tightened his grip, gently bringing Tony closer, so that Tony melted against him instead. Tony lifted his hand to examine the panja bracelet, giving James a better look too. The ring was covered in nonsensical lines, though James was certain they held meaning to Loki.
“Perhaps,” Loki said, and James glanced up to find that Loki was staring right at him.
The thought of wearing similar bracelets made James go cold inside, and he shook his head without speaking – he would if he had to, but he desperately didn’t want to. But Loki smiled again, and instead reached down towards James’s face. His thumb brushed James’s right earlobe, and James could read the implicit question in Loki’s eyes. Not bracelets then, but an earring?
He found he liked that idea, way more than he would’ve thought, and nodded eagerly. Even though his ears weren’t pierced, it didn’t even hurt. The only way he knew it had happened was when Loki’s thumb moved away and there was a new, odd but slight weight left at his earlobe. He gently leaned Tony against Loki’s legs and stood up, moving across the room to the mirror.
The earring was simple, gold with a hanging emerald drop, though again the gold part of the earring was covered in the same pattern as Tony’s ring. James realized that he really liked how it looked. He’d never considered earrings before, but this was no normal earring. It was a sign that he belonged to Loki. His stomach tightened in pleasure at the thought.
“You look sexy,” Tony whispered.
James grinned. “Thanks, Darling.”
“They’re indestructible, and can’t be removed by anyone except me,” Loki added. There was a satisfied glow to him, and James immediately suspected that there was more to the bracelets and earring than Loki had let on. A location charm, maybe, or even protection spells. He supposed he’d find out in time.
He walked back across the room towards them, and Loki drew Tony up into his lap to give James space to re-seat himself leaning against Loki’s legs. Tony curled up in Loki’s lap like a kitten, resting his head on Loki’s chest. James looped an arm around Tony’s waist and leaned his head against Tony’s thigh. It put him on eye level with Tony’s bracelets, which Tony couldn’t seem to stop running his fingers over.
Tony had needed this, James realized suddenly. He needed visible proof of Loki’s claim to them. He wondered idly if Tony might like something from James too. He’d have to talk to Loki about it, and make sure that was okay. For that matter, he had no idea what he could get. Maybe Loki would have some ideas. The idea of giving and receiving things was still a little foreign at times.
“I want to take down SHIELD too,” Tony said at last, in a tiny voice that melted James’s heart – and, he thought, probably Loki’s too.
“Of course,” Loki said instantly. “Whatever you desire, my pet.”
Chapter 7: Epilogue
Wakanda was not really what Steve had expected it to be. It was hot, stifling, and cut off from the rest of the world. He, Natasha, Clint, Sam, Scott and Wanda were confined to one small area of the palace; T'Challa told them that it was to limit the amount of people who knew they were here, but sometimes Steve wondered if that was the case. It usually ended up feeling more like T'Challa had put them out of sight, out of mind. All of them were beginning to feel the effects of being closed up. It was really no wonder that Wanda, against T'Challa's command, frequently slipped out to see Vision.
It wasn't helping that their sources of information were drying up one by one. The information they gleaned from public television wasn't overly helpful, since you couldn't trust the media. Natasha and Clint spent a lot of time tracking down old friends, co-workers and ex-SHIELD agents, but even their reports were coming up empty. Natasha said it was because so many ex-SHIELD agents had been forced to go undercover after it was discovered that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD, and few of them had resurfaced. Steve never could get a straight answer as to how these people had disappeared so thoroughly that not even Natasha could find them.
That was why he'd reached out to a last resort: Sharon Carter. It was dangerous to contact someone in the CIA, but Steve didn't have much choice. Wanda had been missing for almost a month now, which was far longer than she usually stayed away. Sharon had promised to look into things. That had been two days ago. Steve hadn't heard from her since. The lack of contact was making him anxious in ways that he didn't like. He drummed his fingers restlessly, then stood up. He'd go burn off some some energy in the gym.
He stopped short as the door opened. When he glanced over, his mouth fell open. "Wanda?!"
Wanda Maximoff beamed at him. "Steve!"
"Wh-where the hell have you been?" Steve exclaimed as she rushed over to him. He accepted her hug automatically, shocked. Over Wanda's head, he saw Natasha appear in the doorway, no doubt alerted by Steve's shout. It was pretty hard to catch Natasha off guard. Steve didn't think he'd ever seen her look as surprised as she did right now.
"I've been with Vision," Wanda said, sounding confused. She pulled out of the hug. "You know that's where I go when I leave here."
"Yeah, when you leave for a couple of days. You were gone for over three weeks!" Natasha said.
Wanda glanced back at her, then pouted. "I'm not a little kid. You don't have to monitor me."
"We're not trying to monitor you, Wanda. We were just worried," Steve said soothingly, having grown used to running interference between Wanda and the others by now. She could be prickly sometimes, especially when it came to people treating her like a child. She claimed that she was growing up and didn't need them to protect her anymore, but it was hard to remember that when Steve looked at her and he thought the others probably felt the same way.
"Well, I was fine," Wanda said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"If you were fine, why didn't you answer your phone? Or any of the texts we sent?" Natasha said.
"I had my phone shut off. Vision and I wanted to spend private time together," Wanda replied. "Look, I'm sorry that you were worried." She flashed a brilliant smile at Steve. "But it's okay, right? I'm so happy I was able to get away and relax with Vision."
Steve softened. "Of course it's okay."
"Steve," Natasha said, sounding annoyed.
"Great," Wanda chirped. "I gotta go tell Clint!" She swept out the door past Natasha. The second Wanda was gone, Natasha put her hands on her hips and glared at Steve.
"What?" Steve said, sighing. "What do you want me to say, Nat? She's not wrong. She's not a little kid. I can't control her."
"She's putting the rest of us in danger by leaving," Natasha said sharply. "What if someone finds out we're here? You really think T'Challa will protect us anymore than he already has? We're all walking on thin ice."
"She's being careful," Steve said weakly.
Natasha's scowl deepened. "How would you know? You didn't even ask what, if any, precautions she took! And do you really think she was with Vision all this time?"
"You don't?" Steve asked.
"Something is weird." Natasha tapped her foot on the floor. "There's something Wanda isn't telling us, and I'm going to find out what it is." She spun on her heel and marched out of the room. Steve watched her go and shook his head. Sure Wanda had been a little foolish to leave for so long, especially without telling anyone where she was going - but he couldn't exactly blame her for going. All of them would have liked a little time and space away from Wakanda. It was just that Wanda was the only one with powers, so she was the only one capable of leaving.
Plus, they still had their ace in the hole. Natasha didn't know he had reached out to Sharon. No one did. Even though Steve had done it with the intention of making sure that Tony hadn't done something to or with Wanda, and he now knew that Wanda was okay, Steve decided to let Sharon keep at it. Right now, Tony had no oversight. That was always a dangerous thing. Someone really needed to keep an eye on him, and, since Steve couldn't be there in person, Sharon was the next best thing. Steve was confident that eventually, his diligence would pay off when Tony screwed up.
And then it would be time for the Avengers to shine again.