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Dying for love

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The first cracks didn’t start to show with Ultron. God no, if they only had lasted that long. Fury must have been insane to even suggest that they should form a team. Although Tony had to admit that for a short period of time he had actually believed that they could have worked out. Damn his soul, Tony had hoped so bad they would work out. Now it was easy to call himself a fool. In hindsight it was easy to tell when things had started to go bad.

With Loki.

Not the invasion. Of course not. At that time everything had still been fine. It was hard to admit, but Tony thought that been the only time that they had actually worked together. As a team. As people who maybe didn’t know each other very well, but who gave a crap. In a very bizarre way the invasion had been the only time the Avengers had been a functioning group.

Everything changed instantly. As if someone had flipped a switch.

Thor had come back from Asgard. With a very controversial request to say the least.

“No way in hell.”

For the first couple of seconds everybody had been of the same opinion. For the last time. Naturally Tony had been the one to act out. “Okay, I agree that you’ve swallowed some crazy pills, pointbreak, but I’ll give you a chance. The whole story, please. It’d better be good.”

Thor’s story hadn’t been good enough for most of them. Clint had reacted with anger, he had nearly started yelling, while Natasha had stayed completely cold. Almost uninterested. Tony couldn’t stand that about her. Especially when he could see the pleading in Thor’s eyes.

“What do you think, Cap?” Tony had turned to Steve who had looked conflicted, but still willing to live up to his own standards. “I have no idea… I guess we have to listen to every side of the story if we want the whole picture.”

“Cap, you have to be joking…”

“I agree.” Tony had nodded, turning to Thor. “Guess you bring him back here, but do a better job at chaining him up.”

So Thor had brought Loki back to Earth. Chained up and they had put him in a cell for an interrogation. Asgard had more or less declared him insane which meant that he couldn’t be blamed for the shit he had been doing? Tony hadn’t understood all of it. It definitely had had to do with a dark void that was eating away a person’s mind.

According to Thor that could be changed. A person could heal with time and if they were free of other influences on their mind. Thor had insisted that Loki’s behaviour had changed from the second he had woken up in Tony’s penthouse. Even more so with every passing hour. Maybe just an act. Looking back Tony had still no idea why he had voted for keeping Loki there.

 ***

They got him a psychiatrist. What a waste of tax money – Clint called it that. He called the psychiatrist a lot of other things when he suggested that Loki definitely didn’t need to sit in a cell, that it wasn’t doing him any good. Perfectly sane, no desire to hurt anybody. No, that didn’t make a lot of sense.

The brain scans did though. That had been Bruce’s idea. Thank god for Bruce, so much smarter than Tony in every single way. The first scan had been done the moment Thor had brought him back. The second one after the psychiatrist’s bullshit analysis.

“You can debate psychology all you want, maybe you are right and it’s all bullshit. This is science though, you can’t explain medicine away. You can’t explain that away…” Bruce kept gesturing at the scans and Natasha next to him patiently cleared her throat. “Not all of us have a medical background.”

So Bruce explained it to them. Clint snorted and rolled his eyes, so they had three different SHIELD doctors and a famous neurologist explain it again. Not just because of Clint’s dismissal, Fury wanted to be sure.

Tony liked to sum up the very scientific analysis of Loki’s neurochemistry in his own words. Loki’s brain had been completely fucked up. Every single one of the doctors independently compared his brain to the one of drug addict. Not the cool one who enjoyed a joint once in a while and could immediately stop whenever his money was about to run out and had to decide between joints or food. Nope, Loki had the brain of a guy who had been heavily drinking for half of his life and when that hadn’t been enough, he had started a lovely daily routine.

First a glass whiskey to reward himself for getting out of bed. Three lines of coke for breakfast. Not the good kind of cocaine though, not the stuff that Tony had tried during a Christmas party couple of years ago. Cocaine mixed with dirt probably. Lunch was a shot of heroin and since every night was a party night one simply had to treat oneself with a cocktail of ecstasy, LSD and meth.

Yes, that kind of brain.

They also had some other comparisons. One of the doctors mentioned football players with severe brain damages after years of constant trauma injuries. Another one said that judging by Loki’s brain it seemed like he hadn’t slept in years.

Which was interesting since the security footage confirmed that Loki had been sleeping for the entire first week of his imprisonment.

“Okay, I get it, he’s had brain damage. The shitty kind… if there is something like the good kind of brain damage…” Clint stared darkly at the scans in front of them. “That normally results in what?”

The list was long and none of the doctors hesitated for even a second. Psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations, increased distractibility, memory loss, aggressive and violent behaviour, mood disturbances, weight loss, and so fucking on

That was only the first scan. The second one looked quite different and had the neurologist pretty much begging to be allowed to do further tests on Loki. A brain in such bad shape that no recovery should be possible.

Well, Loki’s brain had recovered. Not completely, but according to the new scans he hadn’t done as many drugs as they had thought.

Thor’s explanation was a bit simpler. Tony couldn’t remember seeing him so happy. Which was strange since Thor was a very up-beat person. “Whatever has been messing with my brother’s mind, there now is enough distance between him and it, that the influence is vanishing.”

It was at that moment that Tony realised that he was already convinced. He couldn’t tell why, especially since the others had still trouble believing it. Steve on the other hand wanted to be completely sure. “Can you run the test again? And on Clint.”

“What? Why the hell do you want to check out my brain now?”

“Because we need to find out if we’re talking about mind control here or something else…”

So after a scan of Clint’s brain and several jokes about bean-sized things they came to the conclusion that it either wasn’t mind control or that too much time had passed. Clint’s scan was perfectly normal.

For the first time somebody else than Thor or the psychiatrist went to talk to Loki. Steve wasn’t thrilled that Tony insisted on joining him, but four eyes saw more than two. Loki barely looked up at them when they stood in front of his cage. No madness visible, not even interest. More indifference.

“We need to talk.”

“You can talk. I might not answer.” Tony was an expert in snark and Loki wasn’t being snarky. No, Loki sounded like he didn't care. Also still tired.

“Before the invasion… what happened to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t give us that, we talked to Thor. We know you fell into… a void or something like that.”

“And nothing happened. Nothing happened for a very long time. If you had asked me then, I would have said an entire life. I was very surprised that it was only two years. Two years of nothing…”

That was all Loki said and Steve got frustrated, told Fury that Loki refused to talk, but the empty expression on Loki’s face got Tony thinking. “You should put him in another cell.”

“Excuse me, Stark?”

“Another cell… one with colour on the wall. Hang up a few pictures. Something more… not so white.”

“Why should we do that?”

“Just a feeling. Do it and after week, how about we make a new brain scan?”

Looking back, Tony had no idea why they had agreed to do this.

Loki got a new cell, they did a new test and the scans came back almost completely normal. Fury ordered all of them into the conference room and demanded to know how Tony had known that this would happen.

“Nothing. He said that nothing happened to him. I think he meant that literally… Look, Romanoff was already complaining about the medical vocabulary, so I am going to make this very simple. Thor said that Loki fell into something he called a void. I think that Loki might have passed the event horizon. I really don’t want to get into the physics of black holes… since we know shit about them anyway. Besides I don’t think that it was an actual black hole… I believe that there was nothing. A void indeed. Complete sense depravation. A place where time doesn’t pass like it does here. That would be a reasonable explanation for his brain to go to shit… In all honesty, I don’t think we can hold him accountable… for anything.”

The arguing began instantly, but Bruce agreed with him and Steve was clenching his teeth. Maybe they would have walked away from it. Who the fuck knows… If it hadn’t been for the question – hey, what do we do with the guy in our cell now that his brain is back to normal?

For fuck’s sake it was Fury who suggested it. Counsellor. Thor kept repeating over and over how useful his little brother could be and that it wasn’t his fault. Tony was the first one to say ‘alright’ and he could immediately see that Clint and Natasha were never going to forgive him. Steve didn’t look comfortable, but it was obvious that he was trying to do the right thing. To be the good guy. So Steve agreed and Tony foolishly thought that Rogers and him maybe were going to get along anyway.

That they weren’t going to be the death of each other.

Chapter Text

Tony was too much of a nice person. Yeah, he was also quite surprised about that. Nobody was more surprised than Tony. Especially that the person he was being too nice to was Loki. And everybody else, but the Loki situation made Tony realise that he was cutting people too much slack.

How come?

Well, while Loki was sitting comfortably in his new cell with a desk, books and even a fucking TV, Tony was crouching in his shower, resting his head against the tiles and gasping for air. One couldn’t really get used to panic attacks. Every single one felt like the first one. It was an unknown, overwhelming feeling of anxiety and total blockade of his windpipe. When it was over, you noticed that you were always going through the exact same thing. That didn’t make it easier.

Sucking in a deep breath of air Tony turned off the water and tried to blink the images away. Space. Coldness. Millions of them. All around him. Well, kind of his own fault for carrying a nuke through a wormhole. After doing something like that everybody would come back as damaged goods.

The irony about the whole thing was that a month ago Tony had voted in Loki’s favour. The guy who was responsible for his frequent mental breakdowns. That nobody knew about. Tony was going to make sure that it would stay that way.

Until he had one of his suits attack Pepper. Fucking nightmares. Tony had never been a great fan of sleep, but suddenly he missed it desperately. Shit happening to you was so much easier to deal with when you had someone you could put all the blame on.

Luckily Tony had somebody like that.

They had moved him to a lower security base, despite Thor’s protests SHIELD wasn’t going to let Loki roam the streets. They wanted psychic evaluations, lots of them and even then they weren’t going to let Loki just walk out. Thor had growled and Natasha had explained it to him in the weirdest way. Something about Earth granting Thor a visa, but Loki’s residence permit would be heavily restricted. Tony had never rolled his eyes so hard. As if Thor was going to understand one word of this.

Anyway, Tony actually knocked on the door, but didn’t wait before entering. Loki was lying on his bed, reading a book. What a difference a day makes. Or in this case a month. No more black rings beneath his eyes. His head looked a lot less skeleton like. They had also giving him clothes that didn’t scream ‘prisoner’.

“Hey reindeer games.”

Lowering his book Loki glanced at him and Tony could see the frown forming on his forehead. Really? He had trouble recognizing Tony? Was memory loss a consequence of getting rid of brain damage? Did that sentence make any kind of sense?

“You are the man in the iron armour. My brother thinks you are nobility.” Loki stated casually, his eyes looking Tony up and down.

“Well, remind me to thank Thor for knowing my worth… Love what you did with the place. Better than your last apartment.”

“Thor also told me that you think you are amusing. You are not.”

Yes, Tony was definitely too nice to other people. Especially the ones who had tried to take over the planet. “At least now I know who the nice brother is. I wondered… you’re okay with this arrangement here? Don’t you want to go home?”

It would be so much easier to snap at him if he were still looking like a crazy person or at least like an alien. Like Thor. Right now Loki looked like an average guy. Who actually considered Tony’s question before answering. “I don’t really have a place to go home to. Or a family that I’d like to see again. Why not stay here?”

“That’s kinda… harsh.”

“It’s the truth.” He was turning back to his book which was a sign that Tony should get to the fucking point. “Listen, the reason why I am here… The Chitauri… any chance that you know about their Plan B? If the invasion should fail. Like it did. Gloriously.”

Loki’s fingers tightened around the book in his hands. “Your… friends? Colleagues? Whoever they are, they already asked a lot of questions. Including that one.”

“Yeah, but that was them. This is me. They didn’t see them. I did.”

“I must admit that most of the images in my mind are blurred, but I am very sure that I remember everyone seeing them…”

“Yeah, the ones who made it through the portal. I saw the ones on the other side and I think you did too.”

Tony was proud of himself. His voice was strong and steady, like the last time he had been talking to Loki.

Slowly Loki looked back up and since his face was already white as chalk it was hard to tell, but Tony thought that he just went a little paler. “I just told you… it’s a blur. At the time I knew what I was doing or what was going on… now I don’t. Like when in a dream everything makes perfect sense. After waking up it always seems weird and you can’t find any logic in it. I am afraid that agent Barton might be able to give you a more satisfying answer than me.”

No, Tony should be angry nor disappointed. Severe brain damage. The void, the black hole or whatever had caused it. Maybe the glowing stick of doom had made it worse. What had Tony been expecting? A useful answer. Why not? Loki was a living miracle.

“Would you please just tell me if they’ll come again? You don’t have to remember details, but that must have stuck with you.”

It was the first time Tony saw Loki smile. Not grin. “There is always someone coming. Or something. I may excuse you now, I want to finish this book before my next examination.”

“You actually let them examine you?”

“It’s a reasonable thing to do… to an extent. If I were in your place I would have already killed me. I am no fan of unnecessary risks.”

 ***

So Tony hadn’t had a chance to take out his anger on someone. The panic attacks wouldn’t go away, they actually got worse and then some asshole once again tried to ruin his life. And kill him, of course.

Sure, when your house was blowing up with you and the woman you love inside of it – things look as bad as they can get. When everything is over and you promise to never make another suit again and you get the arc reactor finally removed, then Killian and extremis suddenly look like peanuts. Yeah, incredibly dangerous for a moment. Compared to being kidnapped by terrorists and an alien invasion? Nothing…

Still Tony would have liked to take a break. For his life to calm down for five fucking minutes. That didn’t happen.

Instead he had to watch on TV how three helicarriers were dropping from the sky. The result was him getting into his suit, which he had more or less hidden from Pepper. When Tony arrived at DC though, whatever had been going on was already over. Tony did the best he could to help, but real chaos only broke loose when he finally got a call from Natasha.

“Hostile takeover. SHIELD has fallen.”

As it turned out Steve was in hospital and Tony had to scream at Natasha instead. He couldn’t remember being that angry at someone for not doing the right thing. “You’ve had Hydra infiltrating SHIELD, threatening to kill thousands of people… including me and you didn’t call me?! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“We were busy running for our lives, Stark.”

“Well, you still had the time to bring down the helicarriers.”

“Exactly, everything went down fine.”

Tony felt the need pull his own hair out. She couldn’t really believe that. The woman standing in front of him was supposed to be smart. So why would she make such a dumb decision? Or had it been Steve? One phone call would have been enough and Tony would have made sure that not a single one of the helicarriers would get off the ground. Tony had hacked into SHIELD’s system before. He had basically put a broken helicarrier back together, Tony was an expert. This whole thing could have gone down differently. Sure, Tony enjoyed making a mess, but the blatant destruction that could have been avoided was just too much.

He intended to tell her all of that. Her and Steve. How reckless and stupid that had been. Sure, they had been on the run, but Tony had been there too. There was always time and a way to make a fucking phone call. Especially when Tony had the resources and ways to get them out of their dilemma.

Unfortunately Tony realised the catastrophe they were lost in before he could unleash his fury. So he swallowed it down, they had more important issues to deal with. Like all the doors SHIELD had locked and that Hydra was now prying to open. Their cover was gone, they could no longer do what they wanted in secret, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out that they would take everything they could get their hands on and run.

Weapons were going to be smallest problem.

Thank god Thor had taken the tesseract back to Asgard… but Loki’s sceptre was still here. So was Loki…

Fuck

To say that Natasha, Clint and him were running for their lives was an understatement. Natasha contacted every trustworthy ex-SHIELD agent they could get their hands on (Now she finally knew how to use a phone) and together they headed for several bases.

The sceptre was gone. Which was disastrous. As far as Tony knew none of the scientists had been able to activate it after Loki’s defeat. That thought didn’t much to reassure him.

Loki was still there.

And Hydra was with him.

They weren’t in his cell anymore, but right in front of it. Ten agents forming a demi-circle around him. “We would definitely appreciate your co-cooperation. Aren’t you eager to get out of your little cage, Loki?”

“I already am out of the cage and I prefer not to come with you. Thank you very much.” Loki almost sounded bored, which Tony thought was a good sign.

“To make myself clear, you don’t have much of a choice. We need your help with the sceptre.”

Even from the distance between them Tony could see Loki’s face turn to stone. “That’s not going to happen.”

Tony had to admit that while coming here he had been nervous, no freaked out that Loki would jump at the opportunity to team up with Hydra. Obviously that wasn’t how things were going to play out.

“We gave you a fair warning.”

They fired their weapons at Loki. To kill him, to injure him, to neutralize him. Whatever, Tony wasn’t familiar with Hydra weaponry. All he knew was that they wanted Loki. Thor’s brother definitely wasn’t Tony’s friend, but in a situation like this there couldn’t be any discussion whose side they were on.

When Tony still hadn’t made a single step forward Loki had already disappeared. Next to him Clint was swearing. “What the hell!”

Loki was back within the blink of an eye but now in a difference place. Right behind the poor bastards who had decided to fire at him. How on earth was that possible? Had he moved too fast for eyes to see? Or had Tony just witnessed a real case of teleportation?

No time to ponder that, not when Loki was messing up 10 Hydra agents completely on his own.

Despite Tony’s very intense desires to tear these scumbags and their despicable agents down, for trying to kill him and thousands of other innocent people and for hurting Steve, Tony still couldn’t fight a feeling of dread when he saw how easily Loki subdued the 10 heavily armed aggressors. Tony had to think of Thor because of the blatant lack of similarities. Thor was all strength and muscles. Loki was… fast.

Almost fluid. It looked like a choreographed dance. One step to the left, an elbow into a guy’s stomach, another turn, a kick. Loki grabbed another agent’s gun and knocked two other ones out with it. Eventually 10 guys were lying on the floor and Loki at least seemed slightly out of breath, casually dropping the gun.

“Okay, Reindeer Games, nice work. Now could you please not move till we’re sure that you’re done with breaking bones?”

Loki turned and quickly spotted them at the end of the hall. That was all the moving he did. Good.

“Why did you warn him? I had an arrow ready to take him out…” Clint muttered under his breath and Tony felt stupid. For drawing attention to them. One second later he thought that Clint was the stupid one. Were they sure that they even could neutralize him? Should they? The enemy of my enemy.

Clint had nonetheless an arrow pointed at Loki while they were walking towards him. Loki didn’t move and although Tony’s mind should be on other things, he noticed out weird he looked. Wearing a hoodie way too big for him and sweatpants that seemed to be hanging on his hips.

“Okay, mind telling us what happened here?”

Slightly disinterested Loki responded “All the doors opened. I walked out. They were here. I heard a lot of shooting.”

Yeah, not a surprise, on their way here they had stumbled over dead agents.

“Why didn’t you go with them? They seem right up your alley and you would get back your sceptre…” Clint asked and Loki cocked his head at him. No open hostility, but he clearly wasn’t fond of Clint either. “They appeared to be hostile… and I would rather not be anywhere close to the sceptre.”

That took Clint definitely by surprise and Natasha also raised an eyebrow. Yeah, Tony was just as confused as anybody else, but they couldn’t keep standing here. “Okay, SHIELD got destroyed, you can’t stay in your little… home. You come with us. We need some way to contact Thor. You can help with that?”

Tony’s hand was twitching in his gauntlet. Ready for a fight if Loki should refuse again. The door was open, he could leave if he wanted to. Why should he…

“I can.” Loki nodded softly and all three Avengers shared a rather disbelieving glance.

 ***

Tony should have ripped Natasha apart for dumping all SHIELD files on the internet. That had to be the stupidest thing anyone had ever done. Had she any idea how many lives she was putting in danger? Sure, a few Hydra people in important positions were going down, but so would hundreds of SHILED agents.

Well, Natasha was in a safe spot, but if she weren’t an Avenger, things would look quite differently. Tony had only glanced at her file, he thought he would sleep better without really getting into it.

Anyway, he should have yelled at her, but again, too many things were going on. They had to get Steve out of the hospital as quickly as possible. Installing Loki in Stark Tower and having Jarvis make the entire floor Loki-proof. Which now seemed pretty impossible since they had learned that Loki could teleport. Also there were about 30 SHIELD bases that had to be visited to even somewhat figure out how many damage Hydra had done.

All of them spent about three days without sleeping until they sat together in Tony’s living room. Steve was still terribly pale, sitting awkwardly as if he was in pale. It was a strange reminder that he was mortal.

“You are doing alright?” Tony felt strange for worrying. Steve should be the one person nobody should have to worry about.

Nodding Steve straightened up. “Yes… tell me what I missed out on…”

Natasha did a quick sum-up. SHIELD was history. Probably more than half the agents had died during the take-over. Hydra guys had got up from chairs and killed the person next to them. The sceptre was gone and with it hundreds of other weapons, Chitauri items from the invasion and the stuff that was still there was lying around unprotected. Oh, and although Pierce was put away, Hydra was still around, prospering and they would continue their shady work.

A dark shadow was present on Steve’s face and Tony felt for him. He knew that Steve was taking this personally, thinking that it was his fault. Of course that wasn’t true, but fuck, him and Natasha had handled this was badly as possible. They should have contacted him and Tony would have gone to feds. Not every government organisation could be infiltrated by Hydra and if they were… then it wouldn’t matter anyway, because they would already know what was going on.

Tony would have liked to point that out, but he saw the bruises on Steve’s face and the broken expression on his face. Like he had lost so much more than a job or a fight. With Natasha it was less obvious, but every now and then Tony got a glimpse of her getting lost in her thoughts. Looking lost. Being lost.

Tony had to think of her file and figured out that she had nowhere to go now.

So he remained silent. The ship had sailed, it was too late anyway.

“That’s about it… and we have Loki sitting in one of the lower floors.”

Steve’s head flung up and it was obvious that he had completely forgotten about the god’s existence. “What? Why?”

“They came for him too… makes sense he knows how to use the sceptre and a lot about the Chitauri tech…” Clint explained.

“And you got to him before them?”

“Not really… he took out the agents.”

Steve frowned. “Lethally?”

“Some.” Natasha pointed out. “He came with us without making a fuss. We need to figure out what to do with him. He might be a lot more powerful than we’ve previously thought.”

“How so?”

“Doesn’t matter at the moment.” Clint shook his head, definitely not liking where this conversation was heading. “We’re going to have our hands occupied with Hydra. We don’t have the time to deal with him. I say Thor takes him back to Asgard.”

That suggestion got an instant nod from Steve who seemed glad to have that taken off his mind. “Good…”

Tony’s thoughts drifted back to the void, Loki’s explanation that ‘nothing’ had happened to him, the brain damage and his claim that he needed to stay away from the sceptre. Then him teleporting and taking out the Hydra agents. “I think we should consider keeping him here. Fury was eager to have him as a consultant. He knows the stuff Hydra wants to know, so we have to make use of that.”

“Fury has gone into hiding…” Natasha mumbled absently and Steve swallowed audibly.

Oddly enough now was the first time Bruce decided to speak up. “From what I’ve heard he has been the perfect prisoner. Not acting up once. We all saw the scans. I’ve read interviews they’ve done with him. It really does seem like he… was completely drugged out during the entire invasion. Look guys, until Thor is back it’s only the five of us and a huge organisation of them. We have barely any resources, nor information… To be honest, I don't think we can say no to the help of a sorcerer.”

“Brain damage or not, he tried to take over the world. I don’t see him helping.” Clint couldn’t say that any firmer and Tony snorted. “Brain damage or not? Would you say that in any other kind of situation? Like ‘Oh I don’t mind the brain damaged bus driver driving my kids to school?”

“Please, no arguing…” Steve ran both of hands though his hair, then released a short breath. When he was speaking again, he sounded firm and clear. Like a leader was supposed to. “He didn’t go with Hydra, right? I don’t trust him, none of us does… but Bruce is right, we are at a huge disadvantage… We’ll see if he can… wants to help us. Then we vote on it.”

A good enough plan for Tony. They needed all the help they could get.

Chapter Text

There were rules. Very simple rules. Nobody was going to talk to Loki alone. Even Tony would admit that it made sense. Although he had already talked to him completely on his own… with an army of agents on the other side. Also Tony didn’t want to imagine what kind of security measures were available in a SHIELD cell. Unfortunately Tony’s tower wasn’t a death trap. He had his suits though and they were better than anything SHIELD had had at his disposal.

At the moment it was just a gauntlet, he didn’t want Loki to think that they considered him a threat. Well, technically they did, but Hydra was a bigger problem at the moment. Or at least most of them thought so. They needed back up, that much was for sure. They needed Thor. Their lovable, Asgardian friend guaranteed lots of power and even a bit of magic. Tony wasn’t fond of the hammer though. Throwing one’s weapon constantly away was rather contra productive. Yet everybody would love to have Thor on their side during a battle. Tony was realistic, there would be a lot of Hydra bases to take down and they would need their wits for that… and a lot of fire power. Thor was good at that and considering how much advanced weaponry Hydra had stolen… Tony felt his stomach clenching when he thought about that.

Their predicament brought them here, to the floor that Tony had given to Loki. He didn’t want to label the floor as Loki’s new cell. The door wasn’t locked, but Jarvis was constantly watching. That was better and more secure than any lock could ever be.

Steve’s entire posture was tensed, he clearly didn’t know what to expect and there were already so many things on his mind. To him Loki was one more thing to worry about. One thing too much.

“He’ll be cooperative. He’s been so far.” Tony muttered softly, to both reassure Steve and himself.

“And what if he isn’t? We don’t have the time to deal with his games… or to fight another foe.” Steve’s jaw seemed tense, it was almost hard to make his words out and Tony understood where he was coming from. It was the truth, if Loki decided to make trouble… he would definitely be enough to occupy all of the Avengers.

“You saw the scans. I’ve talked to him twice, he seems reasonable. Calm. He didn’t go with Hydra but with us and he hasn’t caused any trouble when he was still with SHIELD.” Tony patted Steve on the shoulder and then pushed the door open.

The look of surprise made clear that Steve hadn’t expected what he was seeing. Loki sitting on the floor by the window was indeed an odd picture. He seemed to be asleep, his head actually resting against the glass.

“Doesn’t… doesn’t he have a bed?” Steve was honestly flabbergasted and the expression on his face was so amusing that Tony had to smile for the first time in a week. “Sure, he does… I guess he likes the window.”

“Oh yeah? Fuck that, it’s not like we have time for that. Hey, Loki, wake up!”

Why had they brought Clint along? Tony had no clue. At least his method was effective enough, Loki moved and slowly opened his eyes. The look on his face didn’t change when he spotted them.

“Why is agent Barton pointing an arrow at me?”

Very good question indeed. Tony raised an eyebrow at Clint who didn’t take his eyes off Loki. “Because I am going to plant it between your eyes if you even think about doing something funny.”

Yeah, everybody started an amical conversation like this nowadays.

Loki only slightly raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I am aware. That part is perfectly obvious. I am merely wondering what you are trying to achieve that way. I doubt that the metal that the arrow is made of would be able to pierce my skin. Or that you would be capable of firing fast enough to even hit me.”

“You wanna try and find out if that’s true?” Clint hissed and Tony groaned. That wasn’t going to get them anywhere. They had known each other for only a couple of weeks, but Tony was sure that Clint wasn’t his favourite person. That guy looked like he might explode from poking him ever so softly. And Tony liked to poke.

For now he simply put his hand on Clint’s arm to bring him to lower his arm. “I know you don’t like that, but he has the same status as you. Maybe he gets even more points for the brain damage. Reindeer Games, we need to talk. You’ll need to make yourself useful for all the free food and free housing.”

In the calmest way possible Loki got up to his feet and gestured at the couch. Why hadn’t he slept on that in the first place? Tony made himself at home while Steve and Clint were proceeding a little bit more hesitant. They had their guard up around Loki. Probably not the worst idea, but everybody who messed up Hydra agents wasn’t Tony’s foe. At least for now.

They ended up sitting opposite of each other. Loki on one side, everybody else on the other side. “What can I do for you?”

“We need a way to contact, Thor. We need his help to sort a lot of things out. You said you could contact him. We’d like you to do that.” Steve sounded all business, but Loki didn’t seem to bother. “Right now?”

Steve’s mouth dropped a little bit and he glanced unsurely at Tony. “Uhm… sure. If that’s possible. That would be great.”

“So be it.” Loki closed his eyes and suddenly his head dropped forward as if he had fallen asleep within a single second. Or maybe he was having a stroke.

“Is that normal?” Tony cocked his head to get a better look. Loki was still breathing, so much for that.

“No idea…” Steve cleared his throat, but there was no reaction.

Clint called out, said a couple of mean things. Nothing changed and Tony decided that Loki needed to mediate to somehow reach Thor who was still hanging out in Asgard. That didn’t change the extreme awkwardness. “He is not having a seizure, right?” Tony asked and Clint shrugged as if he couldn’t care less. Steve seemed a bit more concerned. “I have no idea. It doesn’t look normal to me.”

They didn’t get an actual reason to freak out, because after another minute or so life seemed to slip back into Loki and he raised his head. “Thor will need a couple of hours to get to the Bifrost, then he will leave immediately. He will probably arrive during the late afternoon.”

Okay, Tony had been wrong when he had thought that it couldn’t get any weirder. “Fine, I’ll do it. I’ll ask. What the hell did you just do?”

“I talked to Thor.” Loki said matter-of-factly and Tony was immediately inclined to believe him.

“Thor is in Asgard. How did you talk to him?” No attempt was made by Steve to hide his distrust and Loki looked back at him with a clear lack of interest. “I have a couple of very useful abilities. Astral projection happens to be one of them.”

Yeah, no. Tony wasn’t a fan of that explanation and neither was Steve. The urge to end this conversation was immediate. Loki didn’t mind, he was obviously very content being left on his own.

As soon as they were out the room Steve turned to Tony, his features tensed. “You do have him under surveillance, right?”

In that moment Tony was feeling the exact same way about Steve as the first time he had met him. Did it hurt to be that dense? “No, I have him doing whatever he likes, because I am an idiot.”

So easy to upset him. Sometimes Tony had the impression that nobody had ever been a smartass around Steve or had talked back to him. “I was merely asking.”

“He is under better surveillance now than he has been at SHIELD. Let’s get back upstairs, we have stuff to do. Secrete bases of evil Nazi organisations don’t just find themselves.”

Thor did indeed show up a few hours later. On top of the tower, which was totally not okay. It took a few more hours to explain the SHIELD / Hydra situation and Tony left the talking to Steve and Natasha. They had more insight into things and Tony could see how important it was to Steve to make his point. That this was personal to him. How could it not be?

Steve had spent his entire career as Captain America fighting Hydra. Successfully so, at least he had thought that. Now everything was suddenly different. For Hydra Steve’s big sacrifice, him going into the ice had not been the end, it had been a set-back. They hadn’t disappeared, not even for a week or so.

To be honest, Tony could sympathise with him. Right now Steve was probably feeling like a failure, like he hadn’t done his job. Or like it had all been for nothing.

Nope, that wasn’t going to be the case. Tony and Bruce had been on Hydra’s list too, they were going to rip them apart. Wouldn’t be the easiest thing to achieve though. If Steve’s story about his old friend with the metal arm wasn’t hugely exaggerated, they had a lot to look forward to.

Naturally Thor didn’t quite get what Steve was trying to tell him, even Natasha had to admit that it sounded strange enough even for them. At least Thor was a good listener, nodding ever so often and he assured them his support. His attitude changed though when Steve mentioned that Hydra had the sceptre and that they had tried to take Loki along with it.

Tony made a mental note to never upset Thor. That growl really could cause shivers running down his back.

“My friends, I swear that I will not rest until we have brought justice to these honourless individuals.”

Steve was all smiles, assuring Thor how grateful he was and Tony hated to be the one to break up the party. “Guys, it’s awesome that we’re all on the same page, but it’s about time we sit down and go over all the data we still have from SHIELD to find the places Hydra is hiding in. We can’t afford to lose more time, or they’ll cover their tracks. Let’s get to work.”

 ***

They got to work and quite successfully so. Or Tony thought so. At first. In SHIELD’s data they found the coordinates of a perfectly secret base in the Rocky Mountains. On paper it looked so secluded that they had to get lucky there.

Except that they didn’t. The place had been recently abandoned. Lots of computer that had been swiped clean of all data. Paperwork that had been burned. A big, ugly sad smiley had been painted on the wall. A speech bubble said “Too late, Captain”

Natasha shot Steve a sympathetic look, but that didn’t stop Steve from knocking over a table. Another failure. Perhaps it was personal for Hydra too and they clearly had the upper hand.

Offering comfort was not one of Tony’s strongest suits. Seeing Steve like that left him feeling strange and not quite knowing what to do. All he could think of was patting him on the shoulder. Didn’t seem quite helpful or enough. So Tony instead said “Guess we have to pack things up…”

Their flight back home was as unpleasant as it could get. Sombre silence, Steve was constantly tapping his fingers against his shield. A terribly annoying sound and Tony wanted to tell him so. Another thing that wouldn’t be fair.

Hell, they had thought an alien army together, Tony should be able to say something nice without feeling weird. Jarvis was taking control of the plane and Tony got up, walking over to Steve. His eyes were fixed on the floor, the look on his face far away and Tony already felt a joke crawling up his windpipe. That was how he started conversations, by being funny.

“Cap, you’re alright?”

Not too bad of a start.

Steve raised his head and his eyes were stern, but Tony he could see some relief. Maybe Steve had just been waiting for someone to talk to. “We have to find that sceptre, Tony. We have to.”

“I know and we will. It was the first base we checked out, Steve. Okay, they got us this time. Not going to happen another time.” Tony smiled at him. Sure, today sucked, but they would bounce back from that. Right now Hydra was forced to run and hide which would ultimately give the Avengers an important advantage.

He got a slight nod from Steve in response, but that wasn’t enough. “I know what they can do to people even without the sceptre… if they figure out how it works and use it on people… Nobody should have that kind of power.”

Tony agreed with that. “You are right and that’s why we are going to find them, take that fucking stick from them and break it in half… like we should have done originally. We got this. We’ve dealt with aliens, we deal with a couple of crazy idiots who want to world domination. We got this.”

Suddenly Steve started smiling and Tony was startled. That looked actually kind of good on his face. Grateful. Relieved. “Thank you, Tony.”

Great, now he was feeling weird again. “No need to thank me, just pointing out the obvious. Now stop tapping, it’s annoying the hell out of me.”

Back at the tower Tony had a short chat with Bruce before hitting the showers and heading to his workroom. Blowing up most of his little robot army hadn’t been the best idea. Especially considering that Hydra was now back on the map. Tony didn’t mind that he had to rebuild about 30 suits, Jarvis was doing a formidable job helping him. No, the work itself was fun and one of the things that Tony liked doing most.

Unfortunately it had cost him another thing that he loved dearly. Pepper hadn’t officially called it quits yet, but Tony was sure that the dreadful call was still coming. In one week or two. It was going to happen. Kind of ironic wasn’t it? Ironman had more or less brought them together, but Pepper had never wanted to be with that part of Tony. He couldn’t be angry at her for that. Not after a suit had almost killed her because of Tony’s nightmares. Nightmares Tony wouldn’t have if he hadn’t chosen to be Ironman again and again. Unfortunately he couldn’t let it go.

Unfortunately?

No, not really. It was part of Tony. Probably the better part.

Ignoring his bitter thoughts Tony sat down and got to work. They needed to upgrade their material if they wanted to get that sceptre back and get rid of Hydra forever. It wasn’t until two hours later that he did his little routine.

“Jarvis? Everything new?”

“He’s still sleeping, sir. Heartrate normal.”

Nodding slightly Tony went back to work. It was always only a question of time. Ever since Loki had moved into the tower Tony had had a close eye on him. Well, technically Jarvis, but that was more or less the same. Ever since Loki had moved into the tower Tony had known that he wasn’t the only one having trouble sleeping.

Tony was busy supplying one the repulsors with more juice when Jarvis let him know that something had changed. “Sir, he woke up. Heartrate highly accelerated.”

“Visual please.”

The live footage popped up on the screen in front of him and it was the same thing as always. Loki was sitting in his bed, with his back straight, sweat soaked and panting heavily. Not in a fun way. Something that Tony was sadly very familiar with. It always went down more or less the same way. Loki would run his hands over his face and through his hair. Tony absently wondered why. Was that supposed to calm him down? To completely pull him out of his bad dreams?

Getting on his shaky legs Loki slipped out of bed and stumbled over to the window. He sank down on the floor and rested his head against the glass, looking outside.

“How is he doing?”

“Calming down.”

“During the last week, has he slept through an entire night?”

“Two, sir, but not in a row.”

Tony was starting to feel pity for him, which was somehow wrong. Pitying the guy who had thrown him through a window?

Fuck, Tony was an asshole. Black hole. Severe brain damage. Sense deprivation. And PTSD that obviously only Tony knew about. Nonetheless Tony had that stupid idea in his mind that it was wrong to feel bad for him. “What do you say, Jarvis? Should we tell Thor about this?”

“I am not an expert, but I think that if Loki wanted Mr. Odinson to know about his anxiety attacks, he would have already let him know.”

“Fair point… what if I am worried that he’ll snap and kill us all in our sleep?”

“Then you would feel very silly for suggesting that he should stay here.”

“Nevermind…” Sighing softly Tony closed the window on his screen and went back to work. Loki shouldn’t really be an issue. Thor was hanging out with him, he was silent, not doing anything. Easy to forget. Or he should be. Obviously Loki just wanted to be left alone and Tony was perfectly willing to do that.

 ***

Clint wasn’t.

“Let’s face it. We’re searching for a needle in a haystack. We’re blindfolded. Why don’t let the guy who caused this help us out?”

Tony’s blood pressure was already through the roof only by looking at Thor. Granted, Loki’s name hadn’t been said, but everybody knew who Clint was talking about. Growing up an only child Tony had never really imagined what it would be like to have a big brother. This looked nice. Somebody feeling protective of you, ready to jump to your defense instantly. Thor didn’t just look ready, he looked like he actually needed to defend Loki.

“Maybe I am missing something, but how did Loki cause the Hydra takeover?” Taking of his glasses Bruce was rubbing the bridge of his nose. Sure, he was tired. Tony and him had done nothing else but going over SHIELD data for hours. Hydra bastards really knew how to fucking hide.

“Hydra wouldn’t have all this alien technology if it wasn’t for him! We wouldn’t have to worry about the sceptre or god knows what.” Clint wasn’t the kind of guy to swallow his emotions that much was clear. What he said was technically true, but it nonetheless didn’t make any sense. Even without the sceptre and the technology they would have to worry about Hydra. The helicarriers weren’t alien technology.

Tony didn’t have the opportunity to point this out, Thor was already stepping forward, growling and Tony couldn’t stifle a chuckle when Clint winced. “I will not tolerate your insults. My brother has been a victim of the sceptre just like you.”

“Really? You got to talk to him, didn’t you? Tony too. Were his eyes glowing when you talked to him? No? Yeah, guessed so.” Clint spat and Bruce had to be once again the voice of reason, gotta love that guy. “You can’t ignore the scans, Clint. You have every right to feel the way you feel towards him, but there was something physically wrong with his brain when the invasion happened. That might have been caused by the sceptre or not, it definitely didn’t make it better. We’ve had the stick in the helicarrier, I was standing next to it and I looked at the date. It was oozing energy. Sweating it out. Holding it in one’s bare hand definitely does have consequences…”

“Okay, whatever.” Clint shrugged, not letting go of this. “Holding it in one’s hand you say? He had it in his hands all the time, so he should be able to help us to find it.”

Now this was getting ridiculous, so Tony had to react with a snort. “Yeah, sure. If I lend you my watch, you wear it one day, would you also be able to find it when I take it back? Through the magical power of wearing it for one day?”

“Tony, please… this is not helping.” Finally Steve was adding something to this conversation, also being not helpful.

“Come on, it’s not the same. You guys are saying we can’t blame him. Alright, but people still died! Lots of them! He was involved in that. Majorly. Like me… I am trying to make amends, to make things right. To do something useful. People died, he killed that poor guy in the Stuttgart opera house out in the open. He is dead, he probably had family and friends and Loki gets to happily live on. This is something he can help us with and if you ask me it’s his fucking obligation to do so.”

By looking around Tony could tell that Bruce didn’t know what to think, Natasha agreed with Clint and Thor was contemplating starting a fist fight. “Listen to me very carefully, agent Barton.” Tony hadn’t realised that somebody could sound so scary when their voice was perfectly even. “My brother is nowhere going near the sceptre. You make a similar suggestion again, I will get Loki and leave. You can sort your own mess out on your own.”

That could end up nasty, nevertheless Tony felt like he had to pick a side. Two nights in a whole week without waking up covered in sweat, haunted by nightmares. “I am with Thor, I don’t think getting Loki involved is a good idea.”

The look Thor gave him made sure that Tony had just won Thor’s everlasting love. At this point the conversation should have been over. If it hadn’t been for Steve. “I don’t think it’s that easy, Tony. Clint has a point. It may not have been his intention, but Loki was involved in the invasion. Clint is right, people died. We can’t just completely overlook that. We can’t overlook Coulson. It was Loki who stabbed him. I am not saying we have to put him back in a cell, but I think it would be only fair for him to help us.”

As serious as he could get and Tony thought about the darkness. Millions of spaceships and Chitauri all around him. Loki waking up in cold sweat.

And nothing happened. Nothing happened for a very long time. If you had asked me then, I would have said an entire life. I was very surprised that it was only two years. Two years of nothing…

Determinedly Tony shook his head. “Nope, that’s not going to fly. Bad idea. He should stay away from all of that. Actually I think that he should…” How was he going to say that without sounding completely insane himself? “I think he should see someone. Someone to talk to. Not like an interrogation… but a psychologist.”

Clint actually laughed, Thor raised both eyebrows because he probably didn’t understand. That didn’t matter. What sat definitely wrong with Tony was the look that Steve shot him.

‘Come on, are you serious?’

“SHIELD had psychologists examine him.”

“Exactly. They were there to check if he was insane or not. Then they slapped an etiquette on him and done. That’s not what I mean. Somebody to help him get better. That’s what he needs and that wouldn’t be such a bad idea for you either…”

“What did you just say?” Tony had obviously stuck a nerve, Clint was stalking towards him and Steve got up from his chair. “Clint, he only wants to help. I appreciate your concern, Tony, but I fear Loki’s wellbeing can’t be our top priority at the moment. He seemed fine every time somebody talked to him, the scans came back perfectly, didn’t they? His injuries from the fight have all healed a long time ago. Hydra is out there right now. With the sceptre. Planning on doing god knows what with it to god knows whom. We simply have to use every possibility available to us…”

Tony didn’t like this. He didn’t like this one bit.

Chapter Text

The next base was a surprising success. They managed to get their hands on loads of files had never been in SHIELD’s possession in the first place. Plans, missions, even a list of names. Very helpful. Even Steve couldn’t suppress a smile at that. It didn’t last long though. They still didn’t have the sceptre and whoever was pulling the strings now was roaming free. Steve was getting impatient. Every day that Hydra continued to exist was a sting of pain for him and Tony understood that. He understood perfectly.

That didn’t mean he agreed with the decision drag Loki into all this. Especially now that they had a list of a couple new places to check out. A very long list. Time to admit that they were seriously understaffed.

“We’ve all seen what Hydra is capable of. We have a responsibility to use all tools available to us.”

God, how much Tony hated that secret agent speech. Hell, he had come to enormously appreciate Natasha, but she had no idea when to switch off her ‘all business, no fun’ attitude. Or was she out of her depth when it came to deal with actual emotions and not manipulation?

“My brother is not a tool for you to use.”

Tony had been worried before when Thor had growled, loudly, gestured wildly with his arms. Now he was just cold, almost as if he was ready to leave instantly if Natasha was to look at him funny. Why was that so hard for her to understand? Sure, they were working together, Thor considered them friends, but Loki was family.

Yes, Thor had vowed to protect this pretty blue planet, but Tony didn’t doubt that Loki was the most important thing on this planet’s surface.

Wasn’t this the kind of thing SHIELD agents should be trained in? Sensing such deep affection and use it to their advantage? Then again, SHIELD had been taken over from the inside and nobody had noticed. Perhaps their formation wasn’t worth a damned penny.

Luckily Steve was still able to think clearly. “We’re all talking a lot about Loki, but maybe we should be talking with him. Hear what he has to say to all of this. Do you think that’s fair, Thor?”

Steve wasn’t quite smiling, but his face was friendly. It seemed to be enough for Thor right now. “I guess that would be alright.” Then he went to completely sombre one second later. “If Barton remembers that my brother also suffered under the influence of the sceptre.”

Clint didn’t look pleased, but eventually shrugged. Another thing that was good enough for Thor. Three minutes later Thor brought Loki up to the penthouse floor. This had to be the most uncomfortable setting imaginable. The same room where the Hulk had beaten him into unconsciousness, where he had woken up surrounded by his enemies. If Loki was even the tiniest bit intimidated, it was impossible to make out. No visible tension, Loki easily met everybody’s eyes, he moved with ease and his still intense presence filled the room.

Loki so close to the very window he had thrown Tony through made him feel slightly nauseous. Not when Loki appeared to be so unbothered by the entire situation. It could all be fake, an act. This was still the same guy who was waking up every second night because of severe nightmares. Now he looked surprisingly good and a bit annoyed.

“Hey Loki…” Steve had to feel so uncomfortable like this, but he was doing a somewhat good job at sounding natural. “Thor told you that we wanted to talk to you.”

“Yes, he did and he also said that I should decline every offer that you are about to make me.”

Tony had trouble to not just laugh out loud while Natasha shot Thor a look that could kill. It left him completely unbothered.

“Would you care to listen to us anyway? Maybe you’ll be of another opinion than Thor.” Steve tried again and Loki nodded. “I am here, am I not? Make your case.”

Everybody looked slightly confused. As if they hadn’t expected him to be a jerk about this. Tony wasn’t taken aback, this felt like an ambush after all and to Loki they were a bunch of strangers that had beaten him up once. What kind of conversation ought this to be?

“The people who have stolen the sceptre are called Hydra and they…”

“I know who and what Hydra is. My brother told me.” Loki already interrupted him impatiently and Steve looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, Thor might not be an expert on this…”

“I also read some of the files. Believe me, I am perfectly aware of what is going. The organisation you were working for got infiltrated and was taken over from within. Hydra stole lots of the Chitauri weaponry and the sceptre. Now you’re running all over this planet to get these things back and to end Hydra’s existence. Is that about right, Captain?” Loki arched an eyebrow and he definitely was an expert at giving somebody a beautifully patronizing glance.

Perhaps Tony should feel offended for Steve, but seriously? Loki had been here for weeks. What did they think that he was doing the whole time? Sitting around and staring holes into the air? Of course he was talking to Thor and Thor had made pretty clear that Loki was more important to him than Avenger business.

Well, Clint obviously didn’t get that memo. “You let him read secret files? You can’t pull that stuff, Thor!”

“Hydra wanted to take my brother along with the sceptre. He has a right to know about them.” Thor wasn’t impressed by Clint’s shock and to Tony’s surprise Steve didn’t care much either.

“Good, so you know what is going on. Hydra is a way bigger organisation that we’ve thought in the beginning. We are following every lead and I am sure that we will find the hiding spot we’re looking for eventually. But it will take time and as long as we’re still looking for them Hydra can use the sceptre to do damage. If we can we want to stop that from happening and therefore we need your help.”

Slowly Loki cocked his head, Tony thought that he looked utterly bored. “I would prefer to stay out of Midgardian business.”

“You were of a different opinion when you came here.” Natasha pointed out and Loki’s eyes slowly settled on her. Easy to tell that he didn’t think too highly of her. “I was not able to have an opinion when I came here, agent Romanoff.”

That tipped Clint off the wrong way. “No, I wasn’t able to have an opinion. You seemed to have a lot of ideas.”

Tony could see Thor opening his mouth, but Bruce was faster than him. “Okay, I am fed up with this. Your behaviour is ridiculous. Get over it.”

Clint’s mouth dropped open and even Natasha looked taken aback. “Sorry?”

“We have physical evidence that he wasn’t capable of thinking like a sane person during the invasion. You know that, so stop trying to start a fight.”

“So am I not allowed to be angry?”

“You are allowed to feel anything you want, but if you keep holding him responsible for the invasion, you also have to hold me responsible for what happened on the helicarrier.”

Natasha’s voice was soft when she spoke up to him. “It’s not quite the same, Bruce.”

“It’s exactly the same. His case is maybe even worse. All you do is losing time fighting over something that we should be done with. SHIELD had let it go and you have to do that too, because I am getting so tired of hearing you talk about something that didn’t even happen. Got it? Great. Loki, is there some way for you to find the sceptre?”

Tony had to remind himself to give Bruce a high-five later on, because that speech had been awesome. Now Loki’s attention was on him, naturally and he looked a bit more interested in him than before. “It’s surrounded by pure energy. It’s strong enough to leave a trace. Everybody should be able to find it if they know what they are looking for.”

And this was the moment when the Avengers all felt collectively stupid for not asking this question ages ago. Expect for Steve maybe, right now he looked overjoyed with happiness.

Clearing his throat Tony had to get this back on track. “Too bad that we have no idea what we’re looking for. Do you know what we’re looking for? And more importantly could you help me find it?”

At this time Tony almost missed crazy Loki from the invasion. That guy had been easier to talk to. “Are you intending to bring the sceptre here?”

“No, we’re going to lock it away for an episode of Storage Wars, what do you think?”

Granted the look on Loki’s face was hilarious. The expression of a man who clearly wasn’t used to not knowing what was going on. Those were the best. Opening his mouth he seemed to be searching for a reply, but then turned to Thor. “I have no idea what he is talking about.”

“Me neither. He does that a lot though. It’s normal.”

“It’s annoying.”

“You get used to it.”

“What Tony means is that, yes, we’ll bring the sceptre here.”

“Sure, Steve, just pretend that you know what I just said.” Finally a reason to laugh. Then Tony’s eyes darted back to Loki and he didn’t look amused. “You don’t want me anywhere near the sceptre.”

Cue for Clint. Who would have thought? “Well, maybe then it’s time you leave.”

“Maybe you are right.”

This was bad. When Loki made the impression of being the most civil on in a conversation, you knew that things were messed up. And they weren’t going to get better, because everybody already knew that Loki leaving was out of the question. “If my brother leaves, I will leave too.”

“Yes, Thor, you’ve made that quite clear. We don’t actually want Loki to leave.” Judging by the look on his face and by the tone of his voice Tony thought that Steve was serious. No reason to get over-excited. At best he was neutral about Loki’s presence. “But there is no other place where we can bring the sceptre. SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore and we can’t leave it with anyone else.”

Also Tony was dying to get his hands on it. SHIELD obviously hadn’t known what they had had in their hands and Tony definitely wouldn’t let Hydra be the only ones to mess around with a seemingly endless power source.

He hadn’t even finished that thought when he noticed that Thor and Loki were sharing a look. “There might be an alternative.”

“Which one?”

Loki nodded and Thor continued. “Leaving the sceptre on Midgard in the first place was a mistake. I will bring it to Asgard. It will be safe in the All-father’s vault and cannot be put to further misuse.”

That was a surprisingly good suggestion and the room was instantly filled with agreement. “Thank you Thor… that would be really great. I’ll definitely feel more at ease knowing that this thing is off this planet. Nonetheless we have to find it first. Can you do that?”

The ‘please’ wasn’t said out loud, but it was there. Tony was sure, definitely there in Steve’s eyes. If Loki gave a crap about that was an entirely different question. “I can try, but I want something in return.”

Before Clint could even think about saying something Steve viciously stared him down. “What do you want?”

“I am tired of these rooms. I tend to leave them behind several hours a day. I don’t want anyone running behind me, trying to put me back in my cage.”

A reasonable thing to ask for. It made sense, from Loki’s point of view. No, it actually made sense from every possible angle. Loki had been stuck in the tower for weeks. Of course, he wanted to get out of here. It also made sense that not everybody liked this idea.

“You are still a SHIELD prisoner, Loki.” Natasha pointed out and Loki answered with a patronizing smile. “The Captain just made a big effort to tell me that SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore. If you indeed consider me a prisoner, then please be so kind and tell me on which authority you’re a keeping me here. Not in a prison, but Stark’s home.”

“Okay, I get it. Reindeer Games is bored and wants to check out the city. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.” Tony shrugged and had two assassins ripping him apart with their eyes. “What? It’s my house and he’s been at his best behaviour 24/7. I don’t see why he shouldn’t get a bit of fresh air. If it makes you feel better, me and Thor can accompany him. What is the alternative? Should he sit in the lower floor for the next 100 years?”

Although clearly unhappy with the situation Steve nodded. “I understand… Fine… Would you… mind to take Thor with you? And we’ll see where we go from there?”

Loki pulled a face, but Thor next to him nodded and eventually Loki nodded. “I guess… why not. Let’s find the sceptre then.”

 ***

Tony couldn’t really wrap his head around how fast this had happened now. To be honest he had expected that he would have to build something. Some kind of device that would be able to pick up and register the traces that Loki had talked about.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead Loki demanded some privacy before sitting on the floor and starting to mediate. Thank god that Steve had muttered the obvious first, so Tony didn’t have to be that asshole all the time.

“Is he serious?”

Thor merely put a finger on his lips, indicating Steve to shut up. Tony shrugged and a gesture that clearly said that both Asgardians were crazy. Steve bit back a laugh and so they waited. They would feel ridiculously stupid if Loki was indeed capable of finding the sceptre by closing his eyes.

It took two hours then Loki able to name them a direction, so they went over the files and found a possible base.

“Russia… now that sounds inviting.”

“That’s a good sign… unfortunately.” Steve muttered under his breath and patted Tony’s shoulder. “Let’s get going.”

They were almost already on the quinjet when Loki grabbed Thor’s arm as he was passing him by. “Don’t let them bring it here. It has to go to Asgard immediately. Nothing good can ever come from it.”

Tony stopped in his tracks, for a second he was even forgetting what they were about to do. He had seen a crazy version of Loki. An annoyed Loki who seemingly didn’t care about anything and this… this was fear. Loki was scared.

It was one of the most gut-wrenching sights Tony had ever witnessed.

At least until Loki realised that Thor and him were being watched. Instantly all emotions were wiped off his face and Loki turned around, leaving them. Thor’s obvious disappointment made Tony feel like he had ruined a personal moment and quickly got on the plane. Suddenly he had a very bad feeling about all of this.

The second Tony laid his eyes on the Hydra base he knew that Loki hadn’t made fun of them. That was definitely more security than everything they had encountered until now. It took them two hours and a Hulk to even get inside, but then it was a piece of cake. A piece of cake and a fucking treasure box.

“What is all this stuff?” Clint voiced everybody’s thoughts as they strolled across the room, impossibly stocked with equipment and devices that even Tony had never seen before. All of it had a revolting Chitauri smell to it. The invasion had definitely been the best thing that had ever happened to Hydra.

“No idea… you’ve ever seen something similar at SHIELD?” Tony asked, waiting for Jarvis’ scan to be complete.

“No, this is new…” Natasha mumbled absently, stopping in front of a table. Several weird looking knifes were lying on top of it. With buttons on them. Better not touch them.

“Tony? Anything?”

“Too much actually. There are energy signatures all over the place. Jarvis can’t really figure out where to look…” Tony shrugged and eventually pointed at a steel door at the end of the room. “Inside there.”

So they broke up another door and they weren’t rewarded with the sceptre, but with anything but.

“What the hell…”

Stones. Crystals. Glowing with light. Pulsing with energy.

Yep, Jarvis’ scans were definitely going crazy now.

“The sceptre isn’t here.” Steve stated the obvious, now dour and angry.

“What did you expect? It was Loki who told us…”

This time it was actually Natasha who corrected him. “Yes and look around. This definitely looks like alien technology. The sceptre was here. For all we know they could have moved it today. Whatever this stuff is… it’s definitely in better hands with us than with Hydra.”

Grudgingly Steve accepted that. “You are right. Let’s pack this up and get out of here.”

Thankfully Hydra had already done a good job and placed the crystals in glass casket, easy to transport.

Back on the plane the mood was better than during the last couple of time and yet there was a sting of disappointment. Especially with Steve. Sure, it sucked to think you were so close to something and then it turned out that were just as far away as always.

“Cap, do me a favour…”

“Sure. What kind of favour?”

Tony smirked at him. “Cheer up a little. Yes, we didn’t find it today, but were a lot closer than all the other times. I know it looked ridiculous whatever Loki was doing, but it worked and he’ll do it again and then we’ll find it and Hydra can suck it. So cheer up.”

The smile didn’t completely reach Steve’s eyes, but it was good enough for now. “I know… you’re right. I was just… For a moment I thought that today we could be done with it. That would have been… You’re right. Today was good. He was honest with us and… we found something important. I just keep wondering… should we really trust him? I know I was completely willing to give him what he wants, because I was so eager to get the sceptre. Was that stupid?”

“He brought us here, didn’t he? Sure, we don’t know him, but talking to him paid off. I know what you mean, we don’t know him. We’ll be watching our backs and him. It’ll be fine.” Tony squeezed his shoulder, because he felt like Steve might need it.

At the end of the somewhat pleasant flight they brought their loot directly into Tony’s lab.

“Are they safe to work with? What do you think? Can we take them out?”

“No radiation, but I have no idea. We definitely gotta run a few tests…”

A few tests, huh? The next day Tony and Bruce didn’t do anything else but running tests. With no results. The casket and its content seemed perfectly fine. Therefore Tony and Bruce decided that there was no reason to keep the casket closed.

“Perhaps we should let my brother take a look them…” Thor looked at them questionably and Tony’s thoughts instantly went back to the terrified look on Loki’s face. “He said he didn’t want to be anywhere near the sceptre. There is a good chance that these… things came from the sceptre. I don’t know, Thor.”

“I will talk to him.”

With Thor gone and every other Avenger present Tony decided that it was safe enough to open the casket. The second the glass was lifted the crystals stopped glowing and left their vivid colours, turning into black stones.

“What the hell… Did you do anything?”

“No! How… Oh, fantastic…”

Seriously pissed off Tony muttered under his breath a couple of profanities before addressing Jarvis. “Pal, time to run the scans again.”

“I am sorry, sir, but it seems you’re now dealing with ordinary stones.”

“Well, now that sucks…”

“You’re sure you didn’t do anything?”

“Did you see us doing something? Maybe it’s too far from the power source or… Argh, fuck.” Overcome by frustration Tony picked up one of the stones and tossed it to the floor.

Everybody around them sucked in a deep breath as if they expected the earth to open up and engulf them all. That didn’t happen and Tony casually shrugged. “What? They’re stones. The magic is gone. I don’t want ordinary stones in my lab…”

“So much about that. I’m outta here.”

Natasha followed Clint’s suit, both of them leaving. Steve stayed behind and Tony readied himself for the lecture he was going to receive, but it didn’t come. “Hydra really doesn’t want to make it easy for us, huh?”

“No and it’s starting to piss me off.”

“We should still keep them locked up… Maybe the… energy will come back?”

“Yeah, possible. I don’t know.”

While Tony was still trying to calm down a little bit, Steve picked up the stone from the floor and put him back on the table. “They’re cold now. I could have sworn that the air around the casket was warm just a moment before…” Probably to find out if the other stones were equally cool Steve put his hand on one of them. Then things escalated too fast for Tony to wrap his head around them.

Tony had never heard Steve screaming. Shouting orders or directions, sure. Calmness, sternness, gentleness even. It had all been there. Captain America screaming in agony was wrong. The strain on Steve’s face was unbearable to watch and Tony wanted to scream himself when he saw what that dreadful stone was doing to his friend.

Glowing, gleaming even with white light and the skin of Steve’s lower arm was blistering. An ugly red colour covered his skin and Steve was still screaming.

It was a reflex, no reason to it. Tony grabbed the stone to stop it from hurting Steve and suddenly fell into a world of pain himself. Something was slipping under his skin. He could feel it rushing through his veins, using its claws to get ahead. His lower arm was exploding with pain. The disgusting scent of burned skin was creeping up his nose, making him nauseous and the pain got even more intense, threatening to make him pass out when something suddenly ripped the stone from his grip.

Had he held on to it? Tony couldn’t tell. Why hadn’t he let go?

“You mortal fools!”

Loki?

Mad green eyes were staring at him. Flashing with anger.

“Steve, what happened?”

They were all there, looking concerned. Everybody but Loki, he looked furious.

The pain was subsiding slowly. Whatever had been under his skin a moment ago was now gone. His skin was still red though, more than that. The veins in his lower arm were standing out, pulsing.

“The stone, it…” Steve sounded weary and Tony could see that his arm looked exactly the same, maybe even worse.

Natasha tried to take a look at it was, but was roughly pushed aside by Loki. With a dagger in his hand. “Get away! We need to cut it out before it manifests itself!”

What the…

“Get away from him with that!”

Loki all but sizzled at Clint. “Shut your mouth, you fool! You have no idea what this is!”

“Brother, you…”

“Captain, give me your arm! Now!” Loki was yelling and there was no way anybody was going to listen to him. Tony definitely wasn’t going to let Loki cut into him. This was Loki from the invasion. Everything about him was pure madness. The eyes that were blown out wide, his gritted teeth.

“Get away from me with the knife!”

“I swear if you don’t hold out your arm, I will cut it off!”

Natasha’s gun was pointed at Loki’s head, she yelled at him to step back, while Thor put a hand on Loki’s shoulder, almost pleading him. “Brother, please, tell us what’s going on, so we understand!”

“It’s a curse! Look at their arms, it’s manifesting itself. In a few minutes a single word will have formed on their skin and it will stay there forever. Telling them how they’re going to die. I can still cut it out. You have to let me cut it out!”

Yes, he was definitely insane.

Steve took another step back, glancing at his arm, then at Loki. “Is this… going to kill us?”

“No, it’s going to drive you insane. Nobody is supposed to know how they are going to die. We have to cut it out!”

Loki tried to make another step forward, but Tony hissed at him. “How do you want to cut it out, huh?! Look!”

Tony held up his arm and the skin on his wrist was starting to turn dark while the rest of his arm seemed to regain its normal colour. “You’d have to slit our wrists to get it out! Not going to happen!”

Staring at his arm Loki slowly came back to his senses and he lowered the dagger. “Cover your wrists… You can’t look at it. If you know… it’s a curse not meant to kill, but to drive insane. Please. Believe me. You don’t want this.”

This was crazy. Seriously, who had let that guy out of his cell? Loki was clearly nuts and… fuck…

The dark colour was changing. Getting thinner and it was taking on form. This could really become a word. Damn it, Tony would think about all of this later. Now he had to buy himself some time. In a rush Tony jogged over to the medical case on the wall. Tearing it down and open Tony pulled out some dressing material and wrapped it around his wrist. Grabbing the rest of it Tony ran back to Steve. “Here…”

The Captain didn’t even seem to hear him. Steve’s eyes were fixed on his wrist. No more dread but fascination. “I think… I can make it out…”

“Don’t read it, you idiot!”

Loki’s yelling was ignored and Steve squeezed his eyes to better make it out. “It says…” Frowning in confusion Steve looked up and Tony had no idea what he had expected. Something horrifying, gruesome, brutal.

What he didn’t expect was…

“Love. It says love.”

Chapter Text

It looked like a strange tattoo. The fond was pretty feminine. Love written across Steve’s wrist. It was ridiculous and Tony didn’t know why his heart was still racing. Just a word. What was it supposed to do?

“You should not have done this. You’ve accepted the curse…”

While everybody was sitting on the couch in the living room, Loki kept pacing around, constantly muttering under his breath. Didn’t he know that he was freaking Tony out? Seeing a murderous god so worried and upset about a little word on Steve’s wrist was a hard pill to swallow. Especially when Tony probably also had such a word on written on his skin. Could Loki calm the fuck down?

“What is this even supposed to mean? Love? Is somebody going to hug Steve to death?” Clint had an expression of utter confusion on his face, enough to actually make him talk to Loki.

“Stop talking about it. Nobody should even talk about it.” Loki kept pacing and Tony was now seriously pissed off.

“Brother, please. If you could explain it once, it would be so much easier for everybody to understand. Nobody will stop wondering if you don’t help us.”

Groaning Loki ran one hand through his hair before finally stopping pacing around. “It’s a curse. Dark magic. Twisted. Difficult. Could have come from the sceptre or anywhere else. How could you be so stupid and touch an enchanted object without… It’s not literal. It’s cruel, ambiguous and meant to be hard to understand. The word on your wrist is closely linked to how you are going to die.”

Slowly Steve looked up from his hand. “I don’t really understand… it says love. How am I supposed to interpret this?”

“You shouldn’t interpret it at all! That’s what the curse it all about. It’s supposed to keep you wondering. It’s never clear… There are stories about a man suffering from this curse. The word on his wrist was ‘water’. He refused to bathe, to shower… eventually to drink. In despair his sons held him down, to force some water down his throat. The man panic and his heart stopped beating.”

Tony grunted. “Fucking self-fulfilling prophecies…”

“So love could…”

“It could mean anything… Sure, the obvious. Sacrificing yourself for love. Getting killed by someone you love. Dying of a broken heart. Or you get bitten by a poisonous snake that the owner for some strange reason named ‘love’. This curse is meant to alienate you from family and friends. To make you always look over your shoulder. You should get a tattoo. A black bolt right over this. So that you maybe can forget about it. And Stark…” Loki turned to him. “You should do the same. Without ever looking at it. You still got a chance.”

“Hold on…” Natasha raised a hand, indicating Loki to stop. “Yes, there is a word on Steve’s wrist, but who says that it isn’t completely random. There is no actual way to predict Steve’s death like this.”

Yes, Tony was still freaking out, but the expression on Loki’s face was hilarious. As if Natasha had just asked him how babies were made. Or some super unrelated shit. Startled Loki searched Thor’s eyes and said a single word “Seriously?”

Thor was clearly flustered and lowered his eyes. “I thought it a bit hard to explain how interwoven magic is with their world…”

“Yes, of course and now I have to deal with their stupidity… Agent Romanoff, I know it must be hard for you, because you already are completely out of your depth even being on this team with a god, a half-god, a mindless beast with the power to tear worlds apart and a man whose intellect makes you look like an insect…”

Although Tony was displeased by Loki calling Bruce a mindless beast, he couldn’t help but feel smug about the praise of his intelligence. Or Loki was talking about Clint, but Tony was confident to rule that out.

“… but just try to see the bigger picture where a glowing stone can create written words on someone’s skin. You have no idea how vast this universe is and what wonders and terrors habit within it. So please, spare me the stupid questions. This is highly advanced dark magic. It came from an even darker place. Don’t question it. It is just as real as all of us.”

Either Clint or Natasha were going to jump at his throat for this, so Tony decided to be the first one. “Wow, you didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid, right?”

Loki ignored him and to Tony’s ultimate amazement Steve completely ignored the string of insults. “So what you are saying is… that it’s impossible to figure out what this means, because there are too many possibilities. I could be… love like between two people or someone’s love for junk food that earns him a heart attack?”

“A bit far-fetched but absolutely possible. It seems you’ve understood the principle. Now do yourself a favour and forget all about it. Live your life, ignore this word. Don’t let it influence you and Stark better not look at it. That’s all you can do.”

When he was done talking Loki caught his breath and then turned around, leaving the living room without another glance at them. With Loki gone Tony felt the nausea coming back. The skin on his wrist was itching. Or what it the bandage?

Don’t think of the elephant, right?

It could be a thousand different things. Heart or liver failure. You couldn’t go wrong with that. Alcohol. Iron Man suit malfunction. Pissed off one night stand.

No, Loki had said not to think about it. Which was impossible.

Love… That had to be a fucking joke.

“This is ridiculous.”

Funny, Tony would have expected Clint to say something like that. Not Natasha. Then again, it made sense. Loki had just given them a lecture about magic and things that shouldn’t be possible. All of that went against her training. Destiny? Things of such power that they couldn’t be manipulated. Or maybe she just couldn’t deal with being completely unable to do something. Being helpless.

Yeah, Tony had been there too. At least now he could decide if he wanted to look at the word on his wrist. Fuck, magic seriously sucked.

“Thor, you think we can believe him? Is that stuff even possible.” Clint looked at Thor questionably who didn’t give them reason for hope. “My brother is extremely skilled in the arts of magic. There is hardly a curse that he doesn’t know. My own experience is limited, but I can guarantee you that there is barely anything that isn’t possible in the realm of magic. I’ve also very rarely seen him this anxious about something. Which tells me that this is serious.” His gaze softened when it landed on Steve. “I am very sorry this happened to you and that I couldn’t help preventing it, my friend.” Then he turned to Tony whose heart sank. “Stark, please follow Loki’s advice and don’t look at the word. You can still walk away from this unharmed.”

Tony didn’t get the same nice words, but the concern on Thor’s face was real. There should be something for Tony to say. Anything. Like thank him or something else.

“I need a drink…” After getting up to his feet Tony walked past Thor and after a short hesitation he patted him on the shoulder. At least some sign of gratitude.

“Stark, we still need to talk about this.”

“No, we don’t. My wrist and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Natasha was still protesting, but Tony merely walked out. He spent the rest of the day in his bedroom with a bottle of vodka, staring at his wrist. Still covered by the bandages of course.

Being reminded of one’s mortality sucked. Dying was something that Tony never thought about. Okay, he had thought about it in Afghanistan, but since then? It was one of the reasons Pepper got so frustrated with him and why Tony was super hero material. Recklessness and not a good sense of self-preservation. At times, especially in the armour, Tony thought himself invincible. Then again, everybody had to die and Tony was in the best position to be a contender.

Maybe the word on his wrist was ‘vodka’. Tony snorted and took another big gulp. The liquid burned down his throat, but didn’t bring him any relief. Suddenly being forced to think about his own death wasn’t a pleasant sensation. Alcohol should still be his top pick. Or it would be something stupidly ridiculous like burning his face off during a test run with the Iron Man armour.

What word would that be?

Fire? Armour? Idiot? Shitty safety precautions?

Loki was right. Every word could be interpreted in anyway, but Tony wasn’t so sure if it would drive him insane to read it. He was already pretty worked up just knowing that there was something on his wrist.

That little voice in the back of his head started working up. Looking at the bandages Tony couldn’t deny the desire to take them off and look at his wrist. Nobody wanted to know about their own demise, except that everybody did. But what was one word going to do? Too vague. Not enough to help him escape his fate. Loki had told him about the guy who had had the word ‘water’.

Tony was so screwed up, it would probably say ‘oxygen’. That was going to make him comfortable. The vodka bottle was halfway finished when there was a knock at the door and Tony’s vision had slightly started to blur. One could simply count on the Russians to make a quality product. At least when it came down to booze.

“Tony? Can I come in?”

Steve. Did he want to bond over their predicament? That didn’t sound appealing and yet Steve was kind of the only person Tony felt like talking to right now.

“Come in…” Tony sighed and Steve pushed open the door. He looked very much like Thor now. Worried. Glancing at his wrist Tony could see that Steve had done nothing about it. Love was still there. Clearly visible. People would probably think that Captain America had the shittiest taste in tattoos.

“Hey…” Steve offered him a timid smile and then carefully sat down on the edge of the bed. “You mind?”

“No, I always like getting drunk in company…” Tony shrugged, taking another sip from the bottle. The slight frown on Steve’s face showed his displeasure, but it was overshadowed by concern and… Was that guilt? Huh…

“I am sorry.”

Yep, definitely guilt.

“What for?”

For a second Steve refused to meet his eyes. “I shouldn’t have touched the stone. This is my fault.”

Tony had no idea if he appreciated that or if he was terribly annoyed by Steve’s willingness to take the blame. A mix of both. “Beat you to it, Cap. I touched the stones first.”

“Yes, but nothing happened when you dropped it to the floor. I picked one up and… Well…” Steve raised his arm and gestured at his wrist and Tony screwed his face up. “Shouldn’t you cover it?”

“Why? It’s not like I would forget what it says… and you guys know it too. Tony… Do you think it’s true? All this magic stuff… we’ve seen a couple of things that should be fairly impossible, but this seems to be a bit of stretch…”

With his eyes still fixed on Steve’s word Tony had to think of Loki’s freak-out. Yeah, shouldn’t be that surprised. A guy who had suffered severe brain damage not a long time ago should be a little on the edge. Still, a dagger in his hand and wanting to cut the words out of their skin was a little extreme. Fuck, they should probably figure out where Loki even had the dagger from.

“Steve, take another look at Thor and Loki and tell me again that this seems like a stretch. The guy can use astral projection. I am inclined to believe him when he says that this is a real curse. Also he seemed pretty freaked out by it. So yeah, I think it’s real. I… felt it. Didn’t you? When I touched the stone, something was slipping inside of me and… This sounds fucking stupid but I think whatever it put on my skin… it also came from inside of me. Was it… like that for you too?”

Tony wished he could flee from this conversation, it felt wrong and the bottle of vodka seemed so much more inviting. Slowly Steve nodded, his cheeks a bit pale and Tony hated magic and everything related to it. They didn’t deserve this. As if they hadn’t enough on their plate with Hydra.

“Yes… I felt that too.” Letting a thumb run over his own wrist Steve seemed a bit absent as he continued to talk. “I think that I’m not going to cover it. It’s… vague enough, no? And definitely one of the better things I can hope for.”

Seriously? What the hell? “Why? It’s fucking stupid. You could be eating an apple pie and choke on it and you die because of your fucking love for apple pies. How is that a good thing?”

Would Tony feel better if Steve was as worked up as he was? He couldn’t tell, but they were just different types. Steve was trying to make the most of it while Tony was halfway through a bottle of vodka. Great, now Steve was even offering him a faint smile. “Granted, that’s a possibility, but I don’t really want to think that. I figured there is no real way to know what it means, so I can choose what I want to believe. Does that make sense?”

Steve seemed to really care about Tony’s opinion, his blue eyes looking at him questionably.

“I guess… and what do you choose to think?”

“That ‘love’ is not a code or a name for anything. That it’s just love.”

No, Tony couldn’t wrap his head around Steve’s process of thought. “Isn’t that scary? The end of your life is caused by love? Why would you choose that explanation?”

“Because… it gives me a purpose. It makes some sense. If I had to choose the way I am going to die… dying for someone I love… that doesn’t sound so bad.” Again Steve tried a little smile. It looked sheepish, like he was searching Tony’s approval, because he was feeling strange for saying something so personal and what other people might consider crazy.

Tony got it though. Steve was right. Love was probably a good thing and Steve’s interpretation sounded reasonable. Would Tony throw himself on a blade to save Pepper? Yes. Would that be a good way to go? Definitely. Steve had come to the same conclusion, because it was a good thing to assume. To give him piece of mind. Also it was only natural, right?

Steve had died for love before. Not a specific person, but he had gone into the ice to save people from dying. That was an act of love. Perhaps that was what the word meant? Had Steve already died? Tony didn’t know and he didn’t want to think about it. The whole premise of thinking about Steve dying caused a shiver running down his spine. That fucking word didn’t say when. It just said how.

Of course Steve was going to die. Everybody would bite the dust eventually. One just didn’t like to be reminded of it.

Dying for someone you love. No, not that bad.

“You’re right… Now can we please never talk about this again? Act like this didn’t happen?”

Taken aback Steve nodded. “Sure, yes… that would be the best thing to do. You…” His eyes dropped to Tony’s wrist and it caused Tony to shiver. Instantly he realised that he didn’t like people looked at it. “You… Have you looked at it?”

“No, of course not. I saw a definitely not squeamish and not easily scared Norse God freak out over this and honestly, I don’t want to know. I could say scotch and that I would be forced to stop drinking which would be horrible and probably kill me. See where I am going with this?” Tony smirked and he didn’t want to know how his face looked right now. It couldn’t be pretty.

Luckily Steve seemed to get it. “Yes, I… It was a reflex. I shouldn’t have looked at it, but… now it’s too late anyway. It’s not like I am going to change my life over it. What are you going to do about it? You can’t wear the bandages all the time.”

“For now I guess a sweatband will do. I will figure something out. Loki’s tattoo idea wasn’t all that bad. God, how fucked up would it be if it said ‘tattoo’ and I am going to die from blood poisoning from getting the tattoo? Great, I need another drink.”

The vodka was still burning and Tony was surprised when Steve held out his hand. “Can I have some too?”

“Gladly.”

They shared the rest of the vodka together and Steve was still there when Tony ultimately fell asleep. It was a comforting thought.

 ***

Tony considered knocking, but it was his tower so fuck politeness. Loki didn’t seem to bother that Tony was just bursting into his room.

“Stark, what can I do for you?”

It didn’t sound like he wanted to do anything for Tony. More like ‘why are you interrupting my mediation’. Tony would admit that Loki was almost pulling it off. That nonchalance. Like he wasn’t sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, because he had woken up screaming. Loki had spent the rest of the night in the living room, sitting there in lotus style, with his eyes closed.

There was no way to be sure, but Tony felt like Loki might turn violent if he knew that Tony had been watching through Jarvis. No, Loki hadn’t had much contact with anyone but Thor, but he always made an effort to appear completely put together. Like he was free from the void and the sceptre and that it had never happened.

That was not the case. Tony knew. He had left that cave in Afghanistan and a part of him was still there. Unable to leave.

“What you can do for me? A list of endless things since you have all that magic. We can talk about that some other time. Anyway, you wanted to get out of the tower for helping us. You did help us and I need to get out of here or my head will explode. Bruce can’t stop looking at me as if I am a dead man walking and although Nat isn’t saying anything, I know she is itching to find out what’s written on my wrist. Steve is way too cool with any of this and if I drink any more vodka, I don’t need to look at my wrist to know what will kill. So, I’m going to get some food. Outside. Wanna come with me?”

Yes, absolute craziness, but Loki was having PTSD and until now he had been completely compliant and even helpful. No, he wasn’t the nicest kid in the neighbourhood, but Tony was a complete asshole, so why bother.

Also Loki was the only person who knew anything about the curse that had branded Tony. Better get in his good graces.

Honestly surprised Loki looked up at him. “You voluntarily want to spend time with me? Alone? Why?”

“Why not?”

“I threw you through a window and tried to kill you.”

“Thor threw his hammer at me and we get along great and Steve threatened to beat me up. Natasha put a syringe in my neck without asking beforehand. You see, I don’t hold a grudge. Why not grab some food together?”

“Because you have a tendency to talk too much. In the most obnoxious way.”

“Really? That’s coming from you? The big drama queen. I am not the only person here who likes to hear themselves talk. Now get up and get going or stay here, but then better not complain about being bored or wanting out.”

It was this moment that Tony realised that Loki had the most expressive face he had ever seen. Displeasure, annoyance and intrigue mingled into one before Loki actually got up to his feet. Green light washed for him and suddenly a young man with blonde curls and a completely babyface was standing in front of Tony.

“What are you doing?”

“I figured this way I might attract less attention in the city.”

Good thinking. “Well then, let’s go.”

To be honest, Tony had reservations. Big reservations if he could even maintain a conversation with Loki. Thor always acted completely ridiculous and out of place when they were around other people. He was always the elephant in the china shop.

Loki not so much. He moved easily among a crowd and the concept of a restaurant didn’t seem alien to him.

“So uhm… how are you doing?”

Instantly Loki arched a blonde eyebrow, his face showing his suspicion. “Why?”

“I’m trying to be nice. Give it a shot.”

“Nothing has happened to me during the last couple of days to change my well-being. Not so much with you. My brother told me you’ve been avoiding the other Avengers and when they saw you, you reeked of alcohol. That’s not the case right now or I would have told you to stay far away from me…” Loki almost sounded amused saying that before turning dead-serious. “You looked at it, didn’t you? I should have seen that coming. You mortals with your tiny little minds, not capable of resisting temptation and not smart enough for a sense of self-preservation…”

“Wow, when you take the time to breathe and get of your fucking high horse, can I get a word in? No, I did not look at it!” Tony had to lower his voice when a family at another table turned their heads towards them.

Loki’s blue eyes widened in real surprise. “You did not… look at it? Why?”

“Because you told me not to!”

“Most of the time people are off better not doing what I say.”

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely.”

“Is that the case now? Would I be better off not listening to your advice? Like Steve… He seems quite content knowing that he’ll die for love.”

Loki snorted. “He doesn’t know anything. He could choke on his favourite food and it would still be dying because of love.”

Despite himself Tony let out a thin laugh. “That’s what I said… Answer my question.”

Passively Loki shrugged. “It’s your choice what to do. It’s a curse, not a blessing. I don’t care, maybe you would like the feeling of losing your mind. Then go ahead, look at it. You are going to do it eventually.”

“Why are you so sure about that?”

“Because everybody does. Eventually. You have a bad day. You are afraid. You find out that you are sick. Too many reasons why you should look at it.”

Yes, this made sense. Tony couldn’t deny that he had played the thought. Especially since he had been the one drinking and Steve seemed at complete peace with himself. Looking at his sweatband Tony sighed. “Sure, I’ve been thinking about it, but… I know myself. Me knowing that… that wouldn’t work out. I can get incredibly creative. If it said ‘wood’ there might be a good chance that I’d invent something to burn down the rain forest. I can’t see that backfiring.”

Silence followed. Not as uncomfortable as Tony would have imagined it. He didn’t feel the need to entertain Loki.

“I could…” Tony’s head snapped up just the right moment to see Loki biting his lip.

“You could what?”

“Nothing.”

“No, you just wanted to say something. Spit it out. I’m trying here, okay?”

“Trying what?”

“Doing something with you!” Tony was close to drawing the other table’s attention back to them. “Seriously, what’s your end game? Hanging out in my tower for the rest of eternity? Not talking to anyone but Thor? I keep it, you’ve been through some shit. We all have. Some more than others. I’m going through some shit right now! You are here and it looks like you’re not going anywhere and I am making an effort to… integrate you? What the hell, I don’t know! When I touched the stone it was hurting like hell. Something was trying to eat me from the inside out and it was agonizing… You made that stop when you forced me to let go it. Thank you for that. We could work together, you know? I am not asking to be your friend, god no. I am trying to establish a friendly co-existence, something I complete suck at. But you gotta do your part to.”

Damn, it felt good to get something like that of his chest and Loki’s dumbfounded face was a pleasure. Not actually Loki’s face, but close enough.

“I could…” Loki stopped again. His voice was soft and hesitant, very unlike him. At least Tony thought so. “I could put an illusion over it. The mark. Make it look like your skin. There is strong magic at work, my illusion may not be permanent, but I could try…”

One of the few times somebody left Tony speechless.

Loki patiently waited for an answer, so Tony had to get a grip. “Would you have to look at it to do that?”

“No… but we would have to look at it to see if it worked. You could slide this band down the tiniest bit and if we see a spot of black we would know that I have failed… It’s your choice.”

Not having to wear that thing would indeed be great and Natasha would hopefully stop staring. Hell, Tony had always been a fan of spontaneous decisions. Decisions that would probably wreck him. “Fine. Do your worst.”

Tony laid his arm out on the table and looked expectantly at the sorcerer opposite of him. Loki wasn’t looking back. He was staring. With wide, disbelieving eyes. Yes, Tony also couldn’t believe that they were doing this.

“So?”

Suddenly a blank mask came over Loki’s and he nodded. His fingers touched Tony’s hand and despite the fact that Loki was going to use magic on him, Tony could only wonder if Loki had changed his entire body or only his face.

His hands looked nice. Very lean and long fingers. Were those his real hands? The next time Tony could get a glimpse, he would have to take a closer look.

Holy shit, where was this warmth coming from? It reminded him of the sensation when he had held the stone. Just without the pain. Something was slipping under his skin. Tentatively this time, not forcefully. Almost asking for permission. It almost tickled.

Then the sensation was suddenly gone and Loki’s hand was still on top of Tony’s. Without the magic it should be awkward, but Tony found that he didn’t mind and Loki quickly pulled away anyway.

“That was it?”

“Creating illusions is as natural to me as breathing.” Loki muttered casually and nodded towards Tony’s arm. “You will have to check though…”

The mere suggestion was enough to make Tony’s heart race. Loki was right though. What was the point otherwise? Grabbing the sweatband Tony pulled at it. Softly, carefully like he was afraid it might fall apart and reveal his fate.

Millimetre after millimetre. White skin. Unmarked.

Tony’s heart was still racing when he had pulled the entire band off and there was nothing on his arm. “Thank you…”

Chapter Text

The reactions were different, but mostly okay. Tony more or less expected a freak out from Clint. Instead the archer merely asked him if he had lost his mind and then obviously decided that there was nothing he could do for him.

Steve frowned softly and used the first possibility he had to talk to Tony. “Are you sure that this is a good idea? Constantly having his magic on you?”

Glancing at Steve’s wrist Tony pointed out the obvious. “The both of us have constantly magic on us. It’s just another form.”

“Do you trust him enough to let him do that?”

“I don’t know, Cap. All I know is that I really don’t want to see it. Magic against magic. Why not?” Tony had no real explanation why he had Loki let put the illusion on him. Mostly because he couldn’t think of a reason why Loki should try to screw him over.

Steve eventually nodded and offered him a sympathetic smile. “If you think that’s the right thing to do for you.”

“For now, I guess…”

Bruce was less interested in Tony’s motives and more in the illusion itself. His hands were on Tony’s lower arm, learning in his so close his nose almost brushing Tony’s skin. “This is amazing… I wouldn’t be able to tell. Have you asked him how he did this?”

“No, I honestly don’t want to know.”

“That doesn’t sound much like you.” Bruce was raising an eyebrow at him and Tony shrugged. “I’ll gladly try and figure out magic when it’s not actually on me.”

“Right. Sorry.” Sheepishly Bruce straightened and Tony got those warm and fuzzy feelings when he realised that the other one was definitely trying to find something to talk about that Tony would be more comfortable with. Not that it was necessary to worry, Tony would be fine with anything but the illusion on his wrist. They did just that, talking about anything but his death sentence and spent the rest of the day in Tony’s lab. Maybe things were finally going back to normal.

 ***

Normal didn’t exist anymore. Not because of the words on their wrists. At the moment Loki’s dark predictions seemed very far away. Tony didn’t know his fate, so he was fine. Well, as fine as Tony Stark could be. Steve on the other end seemed completely unbothered by his tattoo. No, that wasn’t right either. To be honest, Tony didn’t dare to talk with him about it, because that conversation would sooner or later lead to Tony’s word.

Nonetheless it seemed to give Steve… a sense of purpose? Tony could be imagining things, but Steve wasn’t depressed, upset or even worked up in the slightest. Maybe the whole ‘knowing how you will die’ thing was easier when you’ve already died? A shiver was running down Tony’s spine. No, he had been so close to die several times and that didn’t take his fear away.

The bomb had been painful.

Having the arc reactor taken out had been pure agony.

Crashing down from the sky had been several moments of panic and the desperate wish to keep on living.

Whatever was on Tony’s wrist, it was a reminder that someday Tony wouldn’t be able to cling to life any longer and given his previous experiences, there was a good chance that his death would be agonizing, painful and violent. Who would want to be reminded of that?

Love…

Even that could be a gruesome death. Steve had to know that, right? Then again, Steve was the kind of person who would be totally okay to be beaten to death if he knew that his death had a purpose. What was a better purpose than love?

Groaning Tony let a hand run down his face, he needed to stop thinking about this.

The great distraction came soon enough. After some intense detective work, which meant letting Jarvis snoop around, they found hints of another Hydra base.

“Sokovia? That doesn’t sound like a real country.” Clint muttered as they went through the information.

“Granted, most east European nations don’t sound like real places to most Americans. Sokovia has been through a severe civil war. Situation has calmed down a couple of years ago, but it’s not stable. Things could go south again any time soon.” Tony pointed out while studying the satellite pictures of the supposed Hydra base. Very close to the capital. Fuck.

“How come you know so much about Sokovia?” Steve asked, reaching out for some more pictures on the table, revealing his tattoo. Tony resisted the urge to tell him to wear a long-sleeved shirt. He was so sick of these tight t-shirts. “Because I sold weapons to the military.”

Clint raised an eyebrow at him and Tony didn’t know why. “Something you want to say?”

“If it’s a civil war… which side did you sell the weapons to? The good guys or the bad guys?”

What a cute question for a secret agent slash assassin. “There are no good guys and bad guys in war.”

Steve stopped mid-motion, his eyes fixed at Tony. The disagreement couldn’t be more obvious. Was it Tony or could Steve go from normal to judgemental really fast? “Really? No bad guys?”

Somebody was going all Captain America, hero of the Second World War and defeater of the Nazis on him. Unfortunately that didn’t work on Tony, not after growing up with Howard Stark and being in the business himself. “No bad guys, no good guys. Because the German civil family that had their house blown up and their kids killed by a bomb from the Allies is not going to feel rescued when overthrow their government.”

Steve opened his mouth to respond and Tony was completely ready to win this discussion when Natasha cleared her throat. “You can talk about the ethics of war later on. We have to come up with a strategy to get into the base.”

“Right. A fortress on a hill. Good choice for a base… it’s really close to the city though. How can we make sure that they’re not going to be affected?”

Tony glanced at the image in his hand. “I can bring in the Iron Legion, but it may not be enough. We need more information.”

“We can’t afford to lose much more time if the sceptre is indeed in this base. It’s been months. Only god knows what they’ve done with it during all this time.”

“They are not going to use it to take over the world if we wait one more day to check out this place.” It seemed like Steve and him weren’t going to agree on anything soon today.

“I get what you are trying to say, Tony. I do… but we’ve seen what the sceptre can do. We’ve heard Loki talking about. We all know how terrified he is of it. I can’t let Hydra have it a second longer when there is way to stop them from using it.”

Listening to Steve Tony felt his stomach clench. Steve wasn’t wrong. Terrified was about the right word to describe Loki’s feelings towards the sceptre. Naturally Thor’s brother had never said that. Just that they didn’t want him anywhere near this artefact. Yet nobody could be so blind to miss the sheer terror in his face when the sceptre was mentioned. Loki did a shit job at hiding it.

That still didn’t seem enough of a reason to just storm into that base. Or was Tony being hypocritical? If this was one year ago and he knew that Pepper had been taken by Killian, would Tony really plan out every little detail? When he was only risking losing too much time?

Steve had a point. Who the hell knew what they had already done with it. Loki’s face seemed to flicker in front of his eyes. The fear in his eyes, then his almost gentle offer to cover Tony’s death with an illusion. God, this really wasn’t a good way to make decisions. Turning to the others Tony made a questioning gesture. “What do you guys think?”

Thor’s face was pure determination. “If this is where the sceptre is hidden, then we have no time to lose.”

Clint agreed and Natasha was a little more willing to compromise. “Even with the quinjet it’s about a nine hour flight to Sokovia. I suggest we do further research and planning on the plane. How about that?”

“Guess it’ll have to do. So I suggest everybody grabs their things and we’re out of here.” Tony nodded and everybody got up to their feet. Nobody was going anywhere to since Thor obviously still had something on his mind. “I know I could have chosen a wiser moment, but there was no way to foresee that the next base we uncover might be of such importance. I should have brought up my request sooner.”

“Big guy, the clock is ticking. What do you want to say?” Clint tapped his arm, smiling although now they were suddenly all in a hurry. Except for Tony and Bruce. Truth to be told, Bruce was never very eager to go on a mission. Made sense, such a sweet guy couldn’t be keen on turning into a mindless rage monster.

Although Tony was still a huge fan of that mindless rage monster. Especially after saving him from dying.

Thor looked serious. Not an expression that he wore very often, but when he did. Well, that could really make you uncomfortable. “I wanted to request to take my brother along to one of our next missions.”

Well, not more friendly arm tapping from Clint, that was for sure. “What? Are you serious?”

“Thor, this really isn’t the right time.” Steve tried to end this conversation before it started, which was probably the smartest thing to do.

“You are right. I brought it up too late. I should have done that way sooner. My brother could be extremely helpful.”

Clint huffed in annoyance. “Oh yeah?”

No, no, no. Tony wasn’t going to point out just how much more useful a god with magical powers and almost unlimited strange was than a guy with a bow. Finally once in his life Tony knew how to keep quiet. Luckily Steve was handling it and not that bad.

“Thor, I get you, but we have to go now and we have never worked or trained with him. Now is not the time. Let’s go.”

Thor wasn’t happy with that decision, clearly, but he let it go and so they were off, heading for Sokovia.

 ***

The sceptre was there and they found it. Well, not to brag, but it was Tony who found it. Only one in the castle while everybody else was clearing the forest. It went down easier as excepted and Tony almost felt bad for finally having a bit of fun. Those Hydra minions weren’t what they used to be. Definitely a good thing.

Also there was a secret door. Tony loved secret doors. So far so good. What waited behind that secret door was anything but enjoyable. Chitauri technology. All over the place. Even one of these huge things that Tony tried so desperately to forget. How many had been there in New York? Tony was unable to tell. A memory that he somewhat successfully supressed.

Not so much what had been behind the wormhole. Never in his life Tony was going to forget that.

Quickly turning away Tony continued his search for the sceptre and there it was. Right in front of him. Almost as if somebody had laid it out only for him. God, he would look so cool walking out of here with it. Also they were finally going to get that fucking thing of the planet. One thing less to worry about.

Tony took a step closer, then his whole body froze. Literally. He was falling into ice. Everything was cold. So freezing cold that the concept of warmth seemed so alien and then completely disappeared. Gone forever.

Turning around Tony tried to escape only to find himself in space again. On an abandoned rock. Steve was lying at his feet dying. He was the only one still breathing, the rest of them were already as cold as the emptiness around him.

Only it wasn’t empty. Tony could see them again. Everywhere. Millions of them. Chitauri turning the earth into a cold, deserted place. Cleansing it of all life. Tony was falling deeper into it and he had seen it all before. In his dreams and in real life. Before almost dying. This was about to come, millions to destroy all of life. His friends…

Something went off. Like a flash in front of his eyes and the sceptre was still in front of him. Tony could feel his body again. His skin was warm and still pulsing with life. There it was. The source of all of this. How could Tony give it away when it might be the only thing to protect them? To stop the cold from devouring them all.

No, Steve wouldn’t die trying to protect the innocent from this. Tony wouldn’t let that happen.

A gauntlet was covering his hand when he grabbed the sceptre, taking it with him. This glowing stick wasn’t going to be the end of them. None of them were going to die. Not Steve, not Tony. Nobody. Not because of this.

Thor looked surprised and not particularly happy when Tony suggested keeping the sceptre for a couple of days. For research purposes. With Bruce’s help Tony might be able to use it to build a fortress. To protect them from what was coming. From the cold and the darkness. He didn’t dare to say that out loud. They shouldn’t see that he was barely able to stop himself from trembling with fear.

They got back to the tower, Clint got the medical care he needed and Tony brought the sceptre in his lab. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. Well, human decency demanded that he checked on Clint first, but that was handled fairly quickly.

On his way back to the lab Tony ran into Loki and was tempted to offer him a high-five, since this day was just completely awesome.

Or not. Loki’s face was pale as chalk. Eyes blown wide with fear and silent anger. “Is it true? You brought it here?”

Tony raised his hands in what was hopefully a calming gesture. “No reason to worry, reindeer games. It’s going to stay in my lab for three days, then point break is going to take it to Asgard. You are not going to get near it, it’s all cool.”

Loki’s eyes got even wider. Shock and disbelief mingled together. “He should take it to Asgard now. You don’t know what you are doing.”

“It’s just three days, Loki. Hydra had it for way longer and they are stupid enough to make it explode. Nothing happened. It’s going to be fine. I just need to check it out. To find out if it may be able to help.”

“No, your mortal mind isn’t able to comprehend that. Nothing good is ever going to come from this sceptre.” Loki’s voice was shaking and Tony suddenly felt a strange desire to reach out and touch his arm. To tell him that it was going to be fine, nobody was going to force him to get close to the sceptre.

Yet there was something else on his mind. A desire way stronger. It was pulling him back into the lab. 72 hours was nothing. He needed to start working this very second if he wanted to get a chance to realise the Ultron programme. To stop them all from dying. To keep the earth warm.

The expression on Loki’s face changed, his eyes darting from Tony’s toes to his head. Was that suspicion? “There is something about you. Something different… I can’t quite tell…”

“Yeah, you know what’s different? One day ago I was a badass, but not as badass as today, now that I single-handedly took out half a castle. Do I get a high-five?”

Unfortunately Loki wasn’t in the mood for jokes. Tony raised both eyebrows when Loki took a step back, moving away from him. “No, there is… something changed. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Lokes, you’re a drama queen, you know that?”

A nickname and a bit of teasing. Tony should have known that Loki was going to react well to that. The suspicion, the anger and yes, the dread had to leave, they were replaced by complete indifference. “I will go back to my rooms. I will not leave them till the sceptre is gone.”

Without rewarding Tony with another glance Loki told around and stalked away with fast steps, ignoring Tony calling after him. “Come on, reindeer games, no reason to hide away! It’s not going to leave the lab!”

Loki didn’t care and was gone. Sighing Tony turned around to. A part of him felt bad, because he knew very well how Loki felt about the sceptre. Completely understandable, as soon as Tony was done, he wanted that thing as far away from as possible, but for now…

A cold shiver was running down his spin and Tony shook his head as if he could escape the sensation like this. No, the cold wasn’t going to get them. Tony wasn’t going to let the cold engulf them.

Bruce was already waiting for him in the lab and they got to work.

Chapter Text

Yeah, Tony hated coming off his high horse. Especially if other people were there to witness it. Luckily Bruce was the only person present. He wasn’t going to tell and patted Tony on the back anyway. ‘We tried. Didn’t work out. Until next time’

There would be no next time. Three days were over, they had achieved nothing. The sceptre was still there. Laughing at him, giving him the finger. Well, it would if it wasn’t an inanimate object. With magic powers.

They had missed something, Tony just knew that. Now it didn’t matter anymore, because Thor had made clear ‘three days no more’ and Tony felt enough like dick for making Loki hide in his rooms for three days. It hadn’t been so long ago that Loki had spent all of his time completely away from them and Tony didn’t want to go back there.

Tonight they were going to celebrate getting the sceptre, Tony had invited dozens of people and he was going to make sure Loki would be present too. After all he had helped them and Tony was really eager to see Thor’s stupidly happy face if Loki was going to show up at the party.

Or everybody else’s face.

“Jarvis, I’d like to talk to reindeer games.”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony was looking forward to that annoyed sigh with just the right amount of snark. “I am not going to help you with it, Stark.”

“Wow, why do you immediately think I am asking for your help?”

“Because you’re in way over your head. You have no idea what you are dealing with and I am the only person on this planet who has an incline of what is going on.”

Somebody had a decent self-confidence, right? “Uhm… not quite. We’re done with the sceptre and it didn’t go anywhere. Although we didn’t achieve anything, we’re still going to celebrate. Party in the penthouse. You’re invited. It will be awesome.”

“Thank you, but not.”

Blinking in surprise Tony let out a very undignified noise. “What? No is not the right answer! There will be booze, food, more booze, beautiful women and when most people are gone, I will probably bring out the weed. You can’t miss out on that. Literally impossible.”

“I can. I will not leave this room until the sceptre is gone.”

“You know I could tell Jarvis to turn off the water in your bathroom. What are you going to do then, huh?”

“Tell me when the sceptre is gone. Have a nice night.”

It didn’t sound like Loki actually wanted him to enjoy himself and Tony was right about to start the conversation all over again, when he admitted to himself that it was useless. Also a bit unfair, Loki had made clear over and over again that he didn’t want to get out as long as the sceptre was in the tower. This was bad, Tony was starting to feel a bad conscience, so it was definitely time to hit the party and get wasted.

Still, it was a shame that Loki didn’t want to join in. Tony would have loved to see Clint’s face. Also, he would have enjoyed hanging out with Loki, in a casual setting. When Loki wasn’t talking about the sceptre or the fucking curse that Steve and Tony had managed to get caught up in, then he was easy to have a conversation with. Disturbingly smart and actually funny.

Well, Tony would have to do without that tonight There was still booze and he would definitely find other ways to get on Clint’s nerves and to embarrass Thor. The possibilities were endless.

This was going to be an awesome night.

 ***

Awesome. Right. Fuck Tony’s life. Seriously.

The first night in months that they even dared to relax, that they were going to have fun and what happened? The sceptre developed a mind of its own, slipped into Tony’s armours and started to trash the place. And that was the sugar-coated version of the story.

Ultron. Tony’s dream of a protected earth. Of saving it from becoming void and completely cold. Now Ultron was threatened to be the cause of this utter destruction.

Jarvis. Jarvis was shattered. First line of defence. Bruce acknowledged the loss with real shock and sadness. Nobody else did. Which was somewhat okay. For them Jarvis was only a computer system. Useful, helpful, sometimes even charming, but still only a computer.

Not to Tony though. Jarvis was his friend. Had been his friend.

There was no time to mourn though. They had to figure out how to deal with this, how to stop Ultron. Of course, the others were firstly interested in how all of this had happened. Tony had no fucking idea. Bruce and him hadn’t done that. They hadn’t been able to do anything.

Didn’t stop Thor from losing his shit.

That’s how Tony ended up here. With his feet dangling above the floor and Thor’s hand around his neck. Before panic could settle in it was already over again.

“Let go of him, you idiot!”

Tony had never been so glad to see somebody. Loki was snarling, brutally grabbing Thor’s arm and yanking at it. “He is not Asgardian! You can’t just seize him like that! He has bones that will break.”

There was honest shock on Thor’s face and Tony had no idea if it was caused by Loki’s presence or by the implications of his words. At the moment Tony didn’t care that much, because Thor put him back down. Way more gentle suddenly.

What if the word on his wrist said ‘broken neck’?

So much about the shock, Thor was still yelling, this time looking at Loki. “He was messing with powers that he doesn’t understand!”

“Oh spare me the theatrics!” Loki spat the words with venom. “You let them keep the sceptre here when I told you to take to Asgard immediately! All of you seemed fine with keeping it here. Nothing good can come from it. Don’t start shifting the blame now.”

Thor opened his mouth to respond and Loki shot him the darkest glare that Tony had ever seen. Without the madness. Just anger and resentment. Tony could actually see how Thor changed his mind. It was visible on his face. Shock and fury gone within a second. When his eyes met Tony’s again, Tony was still rubbing his neck and greedily sucking in some air.

“I am sorry… this was mostly out of line and shameful. I hope you will be able to forgive me, Stark.”

The ‘no biggie’ comment was sitting on the tip of his tongue, ready to be let out. Jarvis was gone. Shattered to pieces. This was Tony’s home. An attack in Tony’s home. He had seen them all dead at his feet. There was a little cut on Loki’s cheek. Had one of the armours attacked him? Had he left his rooms because of that?

“I would love to say that it’s no big deal point break…” Tony cleared his throat when he realised that his voice was rough. “But it kinda is…”

“I…” The changes in Thor’s behaviour were fascinating, from raging god to little boy not knowing what to do in a mere second. He wasn’t able to voice whatever he wanted to say.

Great, really…

“What made you leave your hide-out?” Naturally it was Clint who spoke up to Loki, but strangely enough, Tony heard no immediate hostility.

“I had a surprise visitor. Same one as you.” Loki gestured at the parts of the Iron Legion, scattered all over the floor.

And that visitor had come close enough to cut his cheek. Tony felt like shit.

“We need to figure out where he went… and what he is going to do…”

Only that all of their files had been erased. Wonderful. The Avengers going through paperwork, no idea what they were actually looking for. Oh, they were also fucking desperate. Tony realised that when nobody said a single word when Loki sat down with them and started going through files. Why had Thor never mentioned that Loki could read with the speed of light? He was through an entire box of files within three minutes.

It was surprising how quickly they found a clue. Why did it always come down to the Vibranium? Of course the evil robot would want to create an unbreakable shell for itself. No surprise there. No they had to jet down to Africa and get to the only place where Ultron could find enough Vibranium in the shortest amount of time. It became once again obvious how fucked they were when nobody raised their voice in protest as Loki came on the quinjet with them. Without explanation. So Loki thought too that they were in deep shit.

During the flight Tony let Clint take over the plane and got up from his chair. He should have done this back at the tower, now he really couldn’t wait much longer. It was good timing, Thor finally wasn’t all over Loki and instead talking to Steve. Which meant Loki was sitting alone, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, staring into nowhere. Tony didn’t dare to imagine what was going on in his head.

Joining him Tony got straight to the point, since his babbling had never helped anybody. “Thanks for… you know, back at the tower. For stopping Thor from breaking my neck.”

Loki slightly turned his head to him. “He would not have. Thor sometimes forgets his strength. Doesn’t excuse it though.”

“Yeah, uhm… Thank you anyway. For having my back.”

“Oh, I completely agree with Thor. You’ve played with powers that you don’t understand. You are an idiot. I didn’t stop you. I didn’t insist. Thor didn’t insist on taking it back to Asgard and none of your friends did do anything about it. The blame can be spread evenly.” Loki muttered rather absently and Tony felt a sting of guilt. “Well, you weren’t subtle about what you thought about it…”

“I talked, but I didn’t do anything. Although I knew all of you were unfit to handle something as powerful as the sceptre. So I have to take care of it now…”

“You sound awfully excited, reindeer games.” Tony tried to put on a smirk and Loki merely shook his head. “It was naïve of me to believe that it would be so simple. That the sceptre would just disappear…”

Tony could tell that Loki wasn’t doing it on purpose, it actually seemed like he was talking to himself. Nonetheless Tony began to feel immensely guilty. Not because of Ultron, he knew he hadn’t done that. He hadn’t been able to. No, Tony had wanted to keep the sceptre. It was still here because of him and now Loki had to deal with it. None of it was fair, but Tony had seen them all dead. The Chitauri savaging the entire planet. It was hard to accept that the sceptre hadn’t been the answer, but he was still willing to search for an answer in every place possible.

Perhaps he shouldn’t do it alone though…

As soon as they were done with this new threat Tony would tell somebody what he had seen. That it wasn’t letting him at all with his sleeping troubles. At some point the whole universe had teamed up to make him miserable.

“I know I fucked this one up, but… as soon as we got the sceptre back… I’ll personally make sure that Thor immediately fucks off with it back to Asgard. I’m completely done with it…”

“Incredibly comforting, Stark. Really…” Loki wasn’t looking at him anymore, which should be a clear sign that this conversation was over. That didn’t sit right with Tony. He wasn’t going to pretend that Loki and him were good friends now or even friends in the first place. Was it weird to feel rejected over this?

“Okay… thanks again.” After a second of hesitation Tony thought ‘fuck it’ and patted Loki’s shoulder. He almost expected to be bitten or slapped, but Loki didn’t react at all. Tony counted that as a plus.

As he went back to the pilot seat Thor returned to Loki’s side and Tony pretended that he didn’t see the apologetic and somewhat sad look that the god was giving him.

 ***

Their first encounter had already proven that Ultron was a jerk-off. The second one craved that into stone. Too bad that he reminded Tony of someone.

As if that fucking murderous robot with a god-complex wouldn’t have been enough, no he had teamed up with the two kids from Sokovia. The guy that had probably taken Clint out. Speedy Gonzales and the Wicked Witch of the West. Not that Tony got too much a glimpse of them, he was busy trying to tear apart that stupid robot. Which honestly didn’t make a lot of sense, since he had already seen that this fucking AI could just hide away in the internet if he wanted to.

Of course Ultron ended up doing exactly that and Tony was faced with horror. The Hulk raging in Johannesburg. His blood was running cold, Tony was going to rip this little witch apart for doing this to Bruce and to these people. As Tony took off he already knew that he wasn’t going to be able to save all of them.

Also Tony got no reply when he asked for help over the coms. Fuck this.

Thank god for Veronica though.

Over the next 15 minutes Tony didn’t have a lot of time to think. Not when he busy trying to somehow take down the Hulk. Several things came to his mind nonetheless. Words.

Hulk – Debris – Crash – Buried alive – Punch – Hit – Beaten

Through a miracle or sheer luck Tony didn’t end up dying. Somehow he was capable of knocking Bruce out and bring him back to the quinjet as soon as he had changed back. Tony’s heart was racing, afraid of what he might find. There had been no answer and his friends had had to deal with witch that had made Bruce lose his mind. What if they had also started fighting each other?

Tony almost saw his darkest apprehensions confirmed when he got onto the plane. Clint was pointing a gun at Loki who was audibly growling. “Put it down, you fool.”

“You are not going to touch her!” Clint answered with a dangerous snarl and they were so caught up in their fight, they didn’t even notice Tony joining them.

“So you want her to stay in this state?”

“You are not going to mess with her mind!” The yelling had started now and Loki merely reacted by sighing deeply and turning to his brother. “Thor? A little assistance?”

Nodding Thor stepped closer. “I am sorry, agent Barton, but my brother can help and you are stopping him from helping her.”

What followed was a display of how screwed all of them would be if Thor and Loki ever decided to team up against the rest of mankind. Thor unceremoniously pushed Clint aside. Not particularly strong, but since Clint was a normal human being Thor was an unstoppable force.

“Thor, what the hell?! Let me go! He’s not going to touch her!” Clint continued to try to get past Thor who easily held him back while Loki was getting down to his knees. Only now Tony saw Natasha, sitting on the floor. The sight of her was terrifying. She looked as if she was in trance, her eyes empty and unfocused. No visible reaction to Loki getting into her field of vision.

What the fuck had happened to her? It had the handwriting of the Maximoff girl all over it.

“Get away from her!”

“You will let my brother help her.”

Clint raised the gun again and Thor almost casually took it from it. Tony expected things to escalate any second, especially since Loki had now placed his hand on Natasha’s forehead. Strangely enough there was no time for a real fallout. Suddenly Natasha’s eyes returned to normal, the stupor all but dropped and she suddenly became aware of Loki being right in front of her. “What… What just happened?”

“You were caught in a dark place. A supressed memory brought up to trap you, mingled together with fear. I raised a pleasant memory to the surface to release its hold on you.” Loki pointed out matter-of-factly, getting back to his feet. Thor finally let Clint pass who immediately rushed towards Natasha. “Are you alright?”

After blinking a few times and rubbing her temple Natasha nodded. “Yes… that wasn’t pleasant… thanks.”

“Guys, we gotta go! Get into your seats. Whatever you are doing, you’re going to have to do that later. We’ve just had a major incident and there might be an angry mob at our heels.”

So they took off and the second they were in the air Tony switched to autopilot because “Somebody needs to tell me what just happened!”

That didn’t happen, because Natasha was busy looking after Bruce. Probably a good thing. Everybody needed a moment, they all looked beat-up. Except for Loki and Thor. Fucking gods. “What did just happen to us?”

“The Maximoff girl… she did something. We weren’t able to move. All of us.” Steve mumbled absently, Thor thought that it almost sounded embarrassed. “She didn’t get to Clint and Loki though.”

“Yeah, she got Bruce too…” Tony said softly, glancing at his friend who was sitting far away from them, curled up in a blanket. It was strange and deeply unsettling to see him like that. Small, a somewhat broken figure, trying to hide from what they were talking about. Trying to hide from everything. She was going to pay for this. Bruce was in a constant struggle with the Hulk, to use the two of them against each other, against innocent people was heinous. Tony wished there was something he could do to help, but for now they had to find out what she had even done. Or if it was over.

“As a technique it is very simple.” Loki mirrored the position from a couple of hours before. Sitting in his seat, arms crossed, talking evenly. “She has the power conjure memories and fears, she can’t create them. It’s unfiltered, intense, too much to handle. Without aid it could take hours to get out of the downwards spiral. Effects can last even longer.”

Nobody said anything for a long moment. Tony could see on everybody’s faces that Loki was describing exactly what had happened to them. What a despicable thing to do. Using somebody’s own demons against them.

“You seem fine, point break?”

Thor nodded quickly. “Loki neutered the effect. He tried to do the same with Romanoff but Barton refused.”

“Didn’t stop you from doing it anyway.” Clint spat and Natasha quickly injected. “I am fine. Really.”

“How about you, Cap?”

Steve lowered his eyes and hinted at a shrug. “Yeah, it was bad, but… I am okay now.”

“Any idea where they went? We need to find them. Ultron is gone too…”

“The two of them won’t come very far.” Loki pointed that out perfectly casually and even to Tony it sounded to cool. “Why’s that?”

“The young man with the atrocious hair colour will find it difficult to run very fast with a gaping stab wound in his stomach.”

“What?” Until now Steve had seemed fairly passive, probably still wrapped up in whatever the witch had let him see, but Loki’s little statement had awoken his spirits. Not in the best way. “What are you talking about?”

Raising both eyebrows Loki gave him a look that said ‘It’s freaking obvious, isn’t it?’. “I threw a dagger at him and it hit its mark.”

“He is pretty fucking fast, how can you be sure?”

“He may be fast, but he is constantly moving in a straight line which makes him incredibly vulnerable.” No, Loki didn’t sound like he cared and after taking another look at Bruce, Tony couldn’t pretend that he cared either.

Steve was of a different opinion. “You can’t do that.”

His vexation evoked real confusion from Loki. “Why not?”

“We don’t aim to kill people.”

“They just killed several people by using him.” Without trying to be discrete Loki nodded towards Bruce who pulled the blanket tighter around him as if it could shield him from the stares. Tony knew that it didn’t make sense, because it wouldn’t change anything, but he wished Loki would have been more subtle.

“We are not like them…” One had to admire how convinced Steve sounded. How firm, truly believing in what he was saying and Tony admire even more how Loki couldn’t give a damn. “Their powers came from the sceptre. They were formed from darkness, they are meant to cause misery. They cannot be used in any other way. They who yield these powers need to be destroyed. Their bodies are Midgardian, weak, untrained, not able to accommodate such power. Unable to master it. It’s not natural. Just another form of what you call Ultron. The vessels of these powers need to be killed and I will do it.”

Chapter Text

“Yes, uhm, Lokes…” Tony shifted awkwardly, feeling like he should be the first one to say something before the big ‘Loki is still crazy and we have to lock him up’ discussion was going to start again. “That’s… not going to fly. We try to… not kill people when it’s not necessary.”

“What did you expect from him?” Clint snorted and Tony hadn’t missed that repugnance for a single second. “He’s a killer.”

“I am sorry, but I fail to see why you are offended by my stance on this, agent Barton. After Sao Paulo and Budapest you should only understand too well where I am coming from.” Loki replied drily and instantly Clint was up on his feet the very next second and Steve pulled him back with a hand on his shoulder.

“You only know these things from taking over my brain!”

“And then I’ve read it on the internet. Agent Romanoff made it public knowledge.” Loki pointed out and Tony was painfully remembered of all these files that he desperately tried to forget. Now the guy from another dimension/world/planet was pointing it out. All while they should be doing other things. “You went there and killed people, because your employers told you to, because these people might someday become dangerous. The only difference now is that these people already are dangerous.”

“Well, I can agree on that.” Tony chimed in and quickly added a couple of other words before somebody was going to rip his head off. “Dangerous, sure, but… we try to put dangerous people who have done bad things in prison.”

Raising both eyebrows Loki looked back at Tony. “Who have you ever put in prison?”

Tony opened his mouth to respond, because it should be fucking obvious. Turned out to be a lot hard than he had thought. Obi… well, how had that turned out? The Ten Rings? Nope. Kilian totally had it coming, so no regrets there. Vanko… Yeah, Tony didn’t have the best track record. “Don’t look at me, I got nothing. Hey, what about Pierce? As one of the heads of Hydra it would have made sense to keep him around to… Oh, right, Fury shot him, forget about that. Nevermind. Uhm… Somebody must have gone to prison. Anyone?”

Tony could hear the crickets chirping. “Seriously? Is Thor the only one who didn’t kill his bad guy? Did you at least try?”

“He’s my brother!” Thor exclaimed offended and the case was closed. Tony surrendered. “Okay, you got us on that one. No prison yet, but we’re going to start right away.”

“There is no prison for her. Those powers are not meant for a mortal body. She did not create them, she didn’t find them. They were given to her and she will be consumed by them. But before they’ll destroy her, she’ll destroy everything around her.” Although he was pretty much talking about the apocalypse Loki sounded like a news reporter – calm, neutral, like he had nothing to do with it.

Tony felt like he had said enough, but Natasha took the bait. “Care to be a little bit more specific?

“Magic is a non-physical extension of a person. When I do this…” Loki raised his hand and a bright string of gorgeous green light was spiralling around his arm, then danced between his fingers. “… it’s all me. Something I was born with and that I’ve learned to do. Through repetition and practice. So when I do this…” After clenching his fingers into fists Loki held out his open palms and they were engulfed in green, golden flames. Two guns were immediately pointed at him and Tony wanted to scream. Seriously? Loki didn’t care, so why bother? “… I am in complete control. I know how much I can put into it without causing danger to myself or other.”

The flames were growing, raging and when Loki turned his hand the fire vanished.

“It’s like an additional limp of my body. Something I can use, something that is working for me. It’s not like that with her. She never had to train, this immense power came from the sceptre. Too much for a mortal body. I don’t know her, but to master the art of magic you are in need of a sharp and strong mind. Not everybody can do it. She’s likely to go mad and then she’ll destroy herself and everyone around her.  Don’t expect me to wait for that to happen.” Loki crossed his arms in front of his chest again and the conversation was so over for him. No, that wasn’t going to happen. His proposal to kill the twins was still hanging over their heads. Not so much a proposal, Loki was just letting them know what was going to happen. Tony didn’t feel like there was much that he could add to the conversation now.

Fortunately Steve had quite a lot to say, it was perfectly visible on his face. Unlike Clint he didn’t look like he was eager on murdering Loki any second now, but the distaste couldn’t be denied. Although Tony didn’t agree with it, he could see where Steve was coming from.

“Then she is another one of Hydra’s victims.”

Okay, maybe Tony had something else to add to conversation. “Sorry, what?”

“We’ve seen them doing this before. Giving people powers against their will, making them their tool. You don’t really think that they care if these powers are going to hurt the people they are inflicting them on.”

Maybe, not likely, Loki had run out of words, because he merely let out a patronizing snort. Steve reacted with a short glance and ever so lightly narrowed his eyes. Great team building effort. Tony was going to throw up. Was somebody going to point out the obvious, please? He really didn’t want to have to do it himself. Loki was great at not giving a shit, why couldn’t he do it? Also, he always had Thor in a corner with him, no risk there.

“They didn’t appear to be mere tools just a few moments ago.” What a surprise that it was Thor who answered Tony’s mental prayer. “Also we’ve encountered them before at the Sokovian base. Not as prisoners or against their will.”

Tony felt a soft tingle of gratefulness and he definitely agreed with what Thor was saying. Nonetheless he wasn’t too keen on that, his throat was still feeling rough. The soft frown on Steve’s forehead was an instant proof that he was clearly surprised by Thor bringing this up. “I get that, but we have too little information to be sure what has being going on with them.”

“They weren’t hesitating to attack us, even before Ultron, remember?” Good, so Clint was on the right track too now. Everything else would be pretty stupid, since Speedy Gonzales was more or less responsible for him getting hurt in Sokovia.

“I know, but we don’t know what happened before that. How they even ended up with Hydra.”

It was definitely wrong that Tony enjoyed how prettily Loki rolled his eyes. Time to get back in on the conversation. “Hill handed us the reports, they volunteered for the experiments. Yes, I know, they probably still had no idea what they were getting into, but Hydra has been public knowledge since Romanoff dumped every single SHIELD field on the internet. They knew it was Hydra. It’s not like they got abducted and forced into this.”

“So what are you saying, Tony?” Steve made a somewhat helpless gesture with his hand. “That Loki is right and that we should just kill them?”

“What? No, of course not. I am saying that not everybody Hydra did ever experiment on is a helpless victim. We are not going to kill anyone, but Loki has a point when he says that they are especially dangerous. I mean…” Tony’s voice dropped and he just whispered “… look.”

He made a hopefully subtle gesture towards Bruce who was still crouching on the floor, wrapped up in the blanket, lost in his stupor.

Steve did look and the frown disappeared. Nodding softly he turned back to Tony. “I understand what you are trying to say… we are not going to treat lightly, I promise, but there is not going to be lethal force.”

“You are a fool if you think you are safe from this because the word on your wrist says ‘love’.” Loki muttered somewhat absently and Steve winced.

The arguing would continue and Tony wasn’t going to have any of it. “Okay, listen… we need to gather our forces and disappear from the surface for a moment. After what happened in Johannesburg… at some point we’ll have to give a long and detailed explanation for that, because all people saw was the Hulk attacking them. Any idea where we could go?”

Nobody was saying anything, so of course Tony would have to get them to his private estate in Italy. Fantastic.

“Why can’t we go back to the tower?” Thor asked without having a clue and Tony wanted to cite all the reasons why when he couldn’t come up with any but “Ultron knows about that place… well, he’s the Internet, so he knows about every single place that has an address…”

“I don’t see what you are pondering about. You are worried about the attention from the people and the media? They cannot get to you unless you are out on the streets. Wouldn’t you be able to put up better security measures at the tower than anywhere else?”

Loki made another good point and Clint had to immediately tell him how wrong he was. “You want to go back to a place full of technology that the robot can use against us? Great plan.”

“Where do you want to go? To a farm in the middle of nowhere with no resources and hope that inspiration will strike you and you come up with a plan? When all you know about Ultron and the twins is back at the tower?” Loki was almost mocking him with glee and Tony had no idea what made Clint snap. He had never seen the archer move so fast, suddenly he was right in front of Loki with a knife at his throat. “If you mention them again, I swear I will-“

“Barton, get away of my brother!”

“Clint, are you crazy?”

Loki didn’t give a damn about Tony’s or Thor’s protest, he also didn’t care about Clint threatening his life. “Put the knife down, agent Barton or I will make you regret it. Or slit my throat and have Thor reduce your body to a bloody mess. Your choice.”

There was no real danger. There couldn’t be. Sure, Loki was a great actor and had perfected that stoic face. Still, normally a knife at your throat should evoke some kind of nervous reaction. Loki was so calm, staring Clint down. Tony didn’t doubt for a second that Loki could overpower Clint any second and yet Tony wanted to scream at the latter to put that fucking knife down.

Which he did, with an angry growl.

Loki still looked unimpressed and turned to Tony. “Your plane. I guess you should decide where it should go.”

Away from all the crazy people who were already on it?

“We’ll go back to the tower.”

“You’re sure this is a good idea?”

“No, but all our resources, gear and information is back at the tower. Jarvis is gone and he is irreplaceable, but I do have some other means to protect us and…” Tony wasn’t going to say it out loud, but he was counting on Loki to do some magic stuff. Not the best time to bring that up. “We’re going home.”

The next hour was complete and utterly awkward silence. Tony had the autopilot do most of the work and slipped away the first moment he could. By now Bruce had settled for a seat and Tony made sure that he approached slowly, from where Bruce could see him. No more surprises today.

“Hey…” Tony muttered softly and crouched down next to him. Bruce was still wrapped up in the blanket, looking so ridiculously small and tired. “How are you doing?”

A stupid question, but Tony couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it.

Bruce’s answer was hushed but honest. “No… I have to thank you…”

“What for?”

“Keeping the damage down… Stopping me from tearing an entire city apart…”

“That wasn’t you and none of this is on you… but on that girl.”

“I get what you’re trying to do, Tones… but it’s not really helping right now.”

Again, Tony had no idea what to say. “This sucks… but… you’ve said it yourself – we cannot blame Loki for what he did and nobody can blame you. I need you to know that, because you are the one person who is going to blame you most. We have somebody to put the blame on and it’s not you. Okay?”

Bruce nodded, but Tony knew that he didn’t feel it. None of it. Right now there was nothing Tony could do and he hated that vicious girl for it. But maybe somebody else could do something.

Thor and Loki were chatting, but immediately fell silent when Tony stepped closer. It was hard to miss how Thor uncomfortably lowered his eyes. No time to think about that now. “Loki, I have a question…”

An inviting gesture.

“What you did to Nat… the pleasant memory thing… can you do that to Bruce too? He’s in need of some good thoughts... urgently.”

Loki’s eyes darted to Bruce’s seat before shaking his head. “I fear it’s something entirely different, Stark.”

“Why?”

“Romanoff was caught up in an unpleasant memory. Thor was caught up in an illusion of fear and darkness. It’s either in the past or made-up. Doctor Banner’s pain comes from another place. From something very real that has just happened. I could try to make him think about something else for a moment or two, but that would make no difference. Also I am not sure I could use magic on him without triggering the beast. Even with his consent.”

Fuck, that was a pretty good argument and Tony was so overcome with anger that it got the better part of him. “I’m going to rip that witch apart…”

“I see someone got the point I was trying to make…” Loki looked actually pleased and Tony quickly shook his head. “No, still not going to happen. Just a figure of speech. I won’t deny that right now I am very likely to use unnecessary force, but nobody is going to be killed.”

“You can speak for yourself and I will do the same.”

Great, really…

 ***

As soon as they got back to the tower Tony sat down in front of the security camera footage and everything that the Iron Man armour had recorded. Ultron liked to talk, he most definitely had given away some piece of information. There was something that Tony was missing. Something big…

“What are you looking at?”

Tony was taken aback that Bruce joined him in watching the videos. “Nothing substantial… You’re sure you want to do this? I’d get it if you wanted to…”

“Don’t even start. There’ll be time when this is gone…”

So they continued to watch the videos and Tony was reminded again of how good it was to have another genius with him. Unlike him Bruce actually noticed how Ultron did not hurt Helen Cho when he had clearly had the opportunity. Why?

Why not hurt the woman who was the only one in the entire world who could give him his own synthetic body now that he had stolen a fuck ton of Vibranium?

Yeah, this was bad news. Time to call South Korea.

“This cannot be all he is doing… At this time Ultron pretty much is the internet. That’s omnipotent as you can get… Do we seriously believe that he is only working on one thing at a time?”

“We are talking about the nuclear launch codes again, aren’t we?”

Before doing that they were getting back on the plane, heading for Seoul and Tony did what they probably should have done a couple of hours ago. Getting the secretary of defence on the phone. Thank god for Rhodey. Sometimes it really paid off having saved the president’s life, didn’t it?

Rhodey had already informed his superiors and the information had gone the right places. Tony’s stomach sank when he heard that Ultron had already tried. Of course, he had, why wouldn’t he?

“Wait a second… can you repeat that?”

“The codes are constantly being changed. It’s not us doing that, Stark. We couldn’t get a hold of you and we’ve actually hoped that it was you.”

“No, that’s not definitely not me… but I’ll find out who it is…”

If there was somebody or something who was one step ahead of Ultron Tony had to find out right now. So got into his armour and prepared to get off the plane when Steve walked up to him. “You’re sure you wanna go alone?”

“You’re asking me that? I am just going to check out a super-computer. You are going to catch up with the evil robot…”

“At the moment I don’t feel good about anyone of us being alone.” Steve sighed and Tony felt for him. He didn’t want them to split up either, but at the moment, there was hardly anything else they could do. “I’ll take care of myself and you do the same, okay?”

“Yeah… it’s good that Bruce wanted to stay behind… I guess I would feel better if we had left him back at the tower too.” Steve didn’t even have to look at Loki for Tony to know who he was talking about and he couldn’t agree less. “He is the only thing that balances out whatever the Maximoff girl can do. I’m kinda glad we have him here. Things would have gone down differently today…”

The expression on Steve’s face was conflicted, because he obviously could see Tony’s point. “I really don’t want to have to look over my shoulder all the time to make sure he is not killing anybody.”

“To be fair he was very specific about who he wants to kill.”

“Tony…”

“I know. Look, I am totally on your side about this, but if she gets to you again, you will need him and after what she did to Bruce today… I am honestly more concerned about your guys’ safety and stopping them than making sure Loki doesn’t go through with what he thinks is necessary.”

Steve remained silent and Tony knew what he thought. This wasn’t war, they shouldn’t even be talking about the possibility of killing somebody. Yet he was aware of the fact that the twins could cause even more damage and that people had already died, because they had been unable to stop them before.

Eventually Steve put a hand on his shoulder and told him to be careful. “We’ll be in touch…”

“Count on it.”