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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.”

Chapter Text

As someone who had his whole life only called a very few number of people his friends Tony found it overwhelming to find out that were was someone who had always had his back. It didn’t matter one bit that Tony had created Jarvis himself to be always there for him. Tony had thought him gone and now it had turned out that Jarvis was still around, still looking out for him and for the rest of the world.

Not some crazed out hacker in some basement, but Jarvis. Still going strong, telling Ultron to keep his hands off the nuclear codes.

“Buddy, you have no idea how good it feels to be talking to you again. People are going crazy.”

“Not exactly a surprise, sir.”

Tony felt like crying, he was so ridiculously happy to be talking to him again. A moment later he made another discovery. Bruce was wearing his compassion clearly visible on his face. Happy that Jarvis was still there, happy for Tony that he hadn’t lost his friend.

So there was still a chance to make things right. Ultron had come to life in Tony’s lab, he could end him there, with Jarvis’ and Bruce’s help.

It had to be a sign that just moments after coming back from Norway Tony got the signal of an arriving quinjet. Clint. Alone. That couldn’t be a good

Mission report – Natasha had been kidnapped and Clint hadn’t been in contact with anybody else for hours. Steve, Thor and Loki had gone after the twins and Tony would have to listen to the details later on. It was hard to concentrate on anything when Clint had brought him the cradle. With a body inside it. Made of human tissue and Vibranium. Ultron could claim how much he hated humanity all he wanted, this was saying something else entirely.

Clint soon left them alone, trying to come up with a way to find Natasha. Tony was standing in front of the cradle and he couldn’t deny that a part of him was saying no. This could backfire immensely. There was no way of knowing if this could even work. It was Jarvis though and Tony trusted him, which meant he also trusted himself.

Then there was this feeling that he hadn’t been able to shake off since Sokovia. The dread. The vision of a cold earth, cleansed of all life. Maybe the image of the Chitauri had been wrong. It was the terrifying truth that there was more than one way how this lovely planet could come to an end. Tony had wanted to keep the sceptre and it had turned against them, all of them. It was Tony’s responsibility to do everything in his power to make it right.

Bruce was amazed. Of course. “No.”

Straight answer, Tony could work with that. He still had an ace up his sleeve – Jarivs. And Tony’s great, fantastic and simply overwhelming rhetoric skills.

Bruce still didn’t look convinced, not even a little bit keen on the idea. “So, you want me to help you put JARVIS into this thing?”

A lot closer, but still not quite there. “No, of course not! I want to help you put JARVIS in this thing. We're out of my field here. You know bio-organics better than anyone.“

Feverishly Bruce was shaking his head and Tony knew that he had to do better. Everybody was going to think he was crazy, especially considering Ultron. They didn’t feel what Tony was feeling. Tony had seen it. Them. All around Earth. He knew that this wasn’t just in his head, the danger was real. Just as real as Ultron and at the moment he couldn’t see any other way. Jarvis was the first and last line of defence. Time was of the essence and Tony couldn’t think of anything. He knew Bruce that was also at his wit’s end. Otherwise he would have already said something.

“JARVIS has been beating him from inside without knowing it. This is the opportunity, we can create Ultron's perfect self, without the homicidal glitches he thinks are his winning personality. We have to.“

Jarvis supported him, telling Bruce that it was worth a try and Tony felt the overwhelming urge to fist-bump his AI. His friend though seemed to want to shake him. Or slap some sense into Tony. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“No, I'm in a loop! I'm caught in a time loop, this is exactly where it all went wrong!”

“I know, I know. I know what everyone's going to say, but they're already saying it. We're mad scientists. We're monsters, buddy. You gotta own it. Make a stand. It's not a loop. It's the end of the line.”

No more jokes or funny lines. Tony wore every single emotion on his face. He let Bruce see the guilt, the desperation. This was the only way Tony was seeing. He might take another one, but there was none. They were here, they could do it. Nobody else and they had no time. Bruce would understand if Tony was honest. They were friends, Bruce would be able to see it.

And he did. Reluctantly, but Bruce was a smart man. Probably even smarter than Tony, he knew that they had run out of options a long time ago.

So they set to work, trying to create something new. While Tony was trying to block out Loki’s words that said nothing good could ever come from the sceptre.

What they were trying to do took hours, Tony was so engrossed, he had no idea how much time had passed. Too engrossed. He was paying too little attention to anything else. Or he would have heard them coming.

Not wearing his armour and Bruce shouldn’t go green right next to the cradle.

Tony’s first thought was that they had messed up Steve’s head. This was all wrong. Why should he be here – with the twins? Something was different though. Different than before. Point number one – the Maximoff twins were here and nothing had exploded yet. Point number two – the witch wasn’t sneering. Point number three – oh fuck…

“I'm gonna say this once.“

That didn’t sound like a mind-controlled Steve. No, that sounded like their jolly, old Captain America. But that wasn’t what was freaking Tony out. “Where is Loki?”

Steve ignored his question. “Shut it down!”

Why were they here? With Steve? No trace of Loki and Thor. After Loki’s very clear words about not making prisoners. Tony was yelling, his hand already reaching out for something that he could use as a weapon. “Where is Loki?!”

Either Steve didn’t hear him or he didn’t care to give him an answer. Yet he was clearly trying to be calm, reasonable and Tony wanted to hit him if he didn’t tell him immediately where Loki was. “You don’t know what you are doing.”

Steve knew just what to say to make Bruce snap. Well, not quite. No green yet. “And you do? She’s not in your head?”

Good fucking question! Also it led right into the next one. Where were the freaking Asgardians? The ones who aren’t opposed to use a little deadly violence against the twins. Why weren’t they here?

The witch made a tiny step forward with her hands raised, looking almost like a peace offering. “I know you are angry…”

Wrong thing to say. Who did she think she was? Even talking to him after what she had done. Tony wanted to know why she was still here and where the hell was Loki. What did she do to him?

“Oh, we're way past that. I could choke the life out of you and never change a shade!”

Tony’s blood was running cold, because he had no doubt that Bruce was being serious. It suddenly became obvious how far she had pushed him. Maybe too far. How could anyone fault him for that?

Steve had to feel that he had no control over the situation, because he made clear attempts to calm them all down. Why? He brought the crazy twins here, they had every reason in the world to lose their shit. This was supposed to be their safe space. Tony had opened it up for the guy with brain damage, but not willing Hydra lab rats.

“Banner, after everything that's happened...”

Oh fuck, Steve seriously wasn’t going to go there. No, Tony wouldn’t let him. “That's nothing compared to what's coming!“

The Maximoff girl stepped forward again. A couple of days ago Tony would have bought into the fearful expression on her face. “You don’t know what’s in there!”

Fuck her, Tony knew better than her.

“The creature…”

Tony was about to start screaming that everybody should shut up or he would get all of his suits and blow some holes into them if nobody told him where the Asgardians were. There was no chance to do any of that. Sparks were flying and by the time Tony had turned his head the entire lab equipment was destroyed. The damned boy with the ridiculous haircut even seemed proud of himself. “No, no. Go on. You were saying?“

Again, no time to react, but for once Tony was really grateful for having Clint in the house. That bastard could be sneaky. Oh and kudos to the interior designer who had told Tony that a glass ceiling would look amazing. That glass ceiling was now gone and Speedy Gonzales was falling right through it. The witch called out for him and Bruce wasn’t taking any risks, grabbing her instantly.

Perhaps they could slow down now and talk about what…

“Step away.”

The slow, disturbingly calm and threatening growl sounded awfully familiar. Tony could actual feel his heart skip a beat. Thank god. Today everybody seemed to be able to sneak up on him. “Guys, so glad to see you. Steve has obviously lost his mind and…”

“Stark, step away from the cradle.” Loki was almost sizzling and Tony moaned. “Really? You too? Did all of you guys just smoke a pipe of friendship?”

Loki glanced at the Maximoff girl and that was all Tony needed to know. No friendship there. Anything but. “I’ll deal with that later. Now step away before you kill us all.”

Tony was going to lose his mind. This could not be real. “What is wrong with all of you?! Are you all just going to stand around while everything is going to shit?! I am the only one who is trying to do something! You’ve seen it too! You should understand!”

The words to describe what he was feeling were lost on Tony. Betrayed? It didn’t quite cut it. If there was one person who should get it, it had to be Loki. But he didn’t get it. There was nothing on his face that could give Tony any hope. If anything Loki looked furious and a bit confused. “I have seen… what?”

Tony could try to explain. Describe what he had seen, but he doubted that it would be enough. Because he didn’t have the words to make them understand. Hearing a description wouldn’t be good enough. It wouldn’t make them feel what Tony had felt. What he was still feeling sometimes during the night. What he had felt and seen in Sokovia. Tony couldn’t explain.

Not when Bruce was still having a tight hold on the witch and her brother could get back up on his feet any second. Sometimes it was better to not ask for permission but to say you’re sorry afterwards. There wasn’t that much time left.

“I’ll tell you later…”

All he needed was a bit of electricity. Okay, a lot of electricity. His field of expertise. Tony’s suit was only a few feet away, but there were two gods and a super soldier between him and his goal. Ah, fuck it.

Activating one of his bracelets called one of his gauntlets to him, which shot right across the room and almost brushed Steve’s head. “Sorry, but this is the only way.”

While putting his hand on the cradle could hear them yelling.

“Tony, stop it!”

“Stark, step away!”

“You’ve heard my brother.”

Yeah, yeah, whatever. They could be mad at him all they wanted, at least they were going to be alive. One blast of electricity probably wouldn’t be enough, but…

Loki grabbed his arm and harshly pulled him away, letting Tony feel his superior strength. “You are smarter than this!”

Probably a little too smart. “Well, you will have to destroy the cradle if you don’t want me to go through with this!”

Raising an eyebrow Loki stared at him, clearly not understanding what Tony was trying to do here. He wasn’t the one who had to understand though. Thor took a step forward, raising his hammer. “That can be arranged.”

Of course Loki figured it, he was a smart cookie, but it was too late nonetheless. “Thor, don’t!”

The hammer came down, its charge and all the energy that Tony had already pumped into the cradle did the rest. A resulting shock wave threw them all back and Tony didn’t care about the hard impact on the ground. He would have to thank Thor as soon as possible, because there was a good chance that Loki would kill both of them.

Not immediately though.

Something or rather someone was emerging from the cradle. The Maximoff girl had called it a creature, but to Tony it definitely looked like a person. Tall, slim and pretty artificial. Vibranium and the artificial tissue worked quite well together. So Tony had succeeded, fine, but shit would hit the fan any second. The reason was simple – the stone in the android’s forehead.

Loki had two daggers in his hands, his eyes were blown wide and Tony knew he had to say something or do something or Loki would launch an attack.

“Jarvis?” Tony asked tentatively and the android slowly looked up at him, shaking his head.

“You fool…” Loki’s hiss was unmistakably, but Tony wasn’t listening, staring at the new creation in front of him. Who was staring back. “I am not Jarvis.”

He sounded like him though. It was Jarvis’ voice.

“I am also not Ultron.”

“I don’t care who or what you are. I know where you came from.”

One didn’t have to be an expert in body language to figure out that Loki was a mere second or a single word away from snapping. The muscles in his face were taunt, eyes narrowed, fingers wrapped so tightly around his daggers that his knuckles were turning white. Was he shaking? Tony wasn’t sure. The guilt became almost too much to bear. A lump in Tony’s throat that slowly stopped him from breathing. He still didn’t have any doubts about what he had done, he had seen that it was necessary. Nevertheless Tony wished that it wouldn’t have this effect on Loki. Then again, what about all of this was fair?

The android turned his head to looking, taking in the sight of him. Seeing him for the very first time. Not threatening. Not impressed. Just looking. “You are afraid. More than the others. But I am not the monster that is robbing your sleep.”

By the way Loki’s eyes grew wide and how he gritted his teeth Tony could tell that he felt insulted. Also he was going to lash out. “I know a thing or two about monsters. I know where they come from.”

Loki’s eyes darted to the Maximoff girl. Shit, when had Bruce let her go?

“There are no monsters here.”

Finally Steve seemed to have re-found the ability to talk. “So who are you?”

It was so weird to hear him speak with Jarvis’ voice. Familiar. Close. “I am not Ultron. I am not Jarvis.”

Now Loki’s hand was definitely shaking and Tony felt the urge to walk towards him, to calm him down somehow. For everybody’s sake.

“I don’t care what you claim to be. I see what I need to know right in front of me.” Loki was clearly referring to the stone in the android’s forehead while raising his dagger. “Thor…”

“Right beside you.”

Oh fuck no.

Who needed a Hulk in his lab when he had two Asgardian gods who wanted to start a fight? They both launched at the android and Tony was yelling, having no idea what he was actually saying. They needed to stop. Natasha was still gone, Ultron was still out there, the Maximoff girl only two metres away from Tony and the only person who knew to undo her shit was… losing his mind.

Tony didn’t have the time to come up with ideas to end this stupid fight. It was over very quickly and without a winner. The sudden silence in the room was heavy and uncomfortable. Air thick with disbelief.

Thor’s voice had dropped to a trembling whisper. “It’s not possible.”

His hammer hadn’t been stopped, it had been caught. The android was holding it in his hand, holding it out to Thor in an almost friendly manner. Giving it back to its rightful owner. Thor, still completely stunned, awkwardly took it and then all of them were just standing there. Dumbfounded.

Loki made a step back, bringing distance between him and the android. “Stark… what did you do? What did you create?”

Finally, somebody willing to talk… and so obviously scared out of his mind. “What Ultron should have been. Look, all the shit what happened came from the… stone. You are right about that, but we alone can do nothing against it. Nothing against Ultron. But if we have these powers on our side….”

His explanation was doing nothing to change Loki’s mind. “You are mad. You just said it yourself. It all came from there.” Loki directly pointed at the android’s forehead. “And none of it has been good. Look at her. Drunk on power that isn’t hers and perfectly happy to take a life. Then switches sides as soon as she realises that her own life might also be on the line. That is the kind of power we are talking about.”

Tony was clearly missing several details here and the witch wasn’t going to fill him in. “I looked in his head and saw annihilation.”

“Look again.”

Thor, finally getting a hold of himself, interrupting the android. “She has no right to look into anybody’s head in the first place. Her words mean nothing.”

“Enough!” Steve was trying get control of the situation, but Tony couldn’t see it. Loki and Thor seemed so far removed from everybody else and Tony still wanted a reason why Steve had come here with the twins. Knowing Bruce would be here. “What is it that you want? Help us? Ultron? Do you care?”

“I am on the side of life. Ultron isn't, he will end it all.”

That was a really good line and Tony was inclined to believe him, because he could hear Jarvis in him. Time to end this fight that was leading them nowhere. “I guess we try and stop him then. With a bit of luck Clint has found out where we have to go…”

“You’ve bet your ass I have.”

Tony blinked, he had completely forgotten about Clint actually being here.

Sokovia. Of course it was Sokovia all over again. That fucking Hydra base. Tony would rip that robot apart.

At least Steve was on the same page as him, determination all over his face. “Three minutes. Get what you need.“

Steve was moving, acting accordingly to his own words, but had to stop when Loki stepped into his way. “Are you giving orders? On what authority? Nobody is going to listen to you after you ran off with them.”

What?

Raising his chin Steve tried to stare Loki down. Good luck with that. “They turned away from Ultron and helped to save people in Seoul. We don’t have lots of allies to choose from at the moment.”

Loki huffed, but it was Bruce’s reaction that got Steve. “So the people in Seoul even out the people in Johannesburg.”

Opening his mouth Steve was struggling for words, but eventually settled for the obvious. “I know this is hard, but right now we have to take every help we can get. Everything is on the line. We will talk about this later, after we defeated Ultron. If we don’t defeat him… then we’ll all be dead anyway which makes this discussion pointless.”

Snarling Loki walked away and Tony’s heart was racing in his chest. Every single part of him expected Loki to attack one of the twins any second, but that didn’t happen. Then he worried about Loki and Thor staying behind, but eventually all of them ended up in the quinjet, leaving for Sokovia. It was surreal, there were people who shouldn’t be with them and Tony’s… creation. Other, more important things to talk about, but Tony nonetheless sought out Loki, pulling him aside at the first chance he could get.

Green eyes were not looking at him though. Loki wasn’t taking eyes off the Maximoff girl for a second. She pretended to not notice or to not care, but she was doing a miserable job at that.

“Reindeer Games, what the hell happened in Seoul? You guys are throwing me for several loops here.”

“Shouldn’t you be talking to the fearless leader if you want information?”

“Okay, I already got that you are pissed at Steve and I am also not very keen on him bringing the crazy twins to my house. What happened?”

“The twins realised that the end of Midgard would also mean their deaths and changed their course. Ultron derailed a train and they helped the Captain to save the passengers and bystanders. Thor and me took care of Ultron’s minions. Barton left with the cradle. The Captain left them with. Without a word. Because he knew I wouldn’t even let them open their mouths to voice feeble lies. I don’t know what they told him and I don’t care. Before this is all over I will have handled this.”

What was beautiful euphemism for killing somebody.

“I don’t trust them and it’s sickening that Bruce has to be in the same room with her, but if they see their mistakes… maybe killing them isn’t necessary. They’ll be punished. We gotta let them help for now… Steve is right about that, we need all the help we can get.”

Tony flinched when Loki’s eyes surprisingly settled on him after all. The anger from 10 minutes ago seemed to be gone, but now Tony could see it too. What the android had said. Loki was more afraid than all of them together.

“When you are capable of twisting and manipulating someone’s mind… you are unable to see your own mistakes.”

Chapter Text

The plane ride was a complete freak show.

Tony was watching Loki who was watching Wanda who was watching Loki. Two people with magic abilities who were just waiting for an opportunity to rip each other’s throat out. Amazing. Too bad that Loki expected both of them to snap at any time and start a fight on the plane. Sure, it would be only rational to save this for after beating Ultron’s ass, but Tony wasn’t sure if he could rely on anyone being rational.

Oh and there were Bruce and Steve. Another couple that would need counselling when all of this was over. Bruce was staying close to Tony’s side the entire time. No words necessary to explain why. At the moment he was the only person Bruce felt safe to be around. To Tony that seemed blatantly obvious. Not so much to Steve. Sometimes Tony wondered how people could be that dense. So oblivious to what the person right next to them was feeling. How was it possible to miss all signs of body language? The expression on somebody’s face. The way they turned their body away from you. No, Tony didn’t get it.

Him and Bruce were sitting aside, speaking softly and barely audibly. Bruce had voiced some concern about Natasha and Tony had waved it off. Telling him that she was fine, since Ultron would have already gloated about it if she wasn’t okay. Also, and this was the part Tony didn’t say out loud, he had a feeling that Natasha always landed on her feet while the people around her crushed to their death.

It was then that Steve decided to join them. Bruce wasn’t subtle. He sent all the clear signals that said ‘I want you to fuck off’. “Guys, I would like to talk to you for a second to get on the same page.”

“We are on the same page. Our new friend is going to kick Ultron off the internet. Bruce is going to get Nat. We are going to evacuate the city, then we’re going to tear the freaking robot apart. Like we’ve discussed. Content?”

“Actually…”

“Steve, could you please go back to the other side of the plane?”

Quiet and calm, exactly how Bruce always tried to be and yet very firm. Blinking in surprise Steve so clearly had no idea what was going on. “Sorry?”

Bruce was raising his head and Tony wanted to lean closer to make sure that there wasn’t a bit of green in his eyes. “I need all of my concentration and a lot of good will to tolerate her on this plane. You’re making it so much harder by getting my face.”

Tony wanted to voice a ‘hallelujah’ when he could see that Steve got it. Not completely, but at least he realised that the situation was serious. That he was indeed upsetting Bruce. Honestly, Tony didn’t doubt for a second that Steve’s intentions were pure, that he wanted the best for everybody. Saving all the people in peril and then celebrating Christmas together. Steve was a war hero, good at punching people. Diplomacy and negotiations? No, they hadn’t called Captain America for that. They had called him to blow up shit. Technically Steve was right, the twins were an asset that they couldn’t refuse. But unfortunately that was all he could see. The implications were lost on him.

“I am… sorry. What did I do?”

Sucking in a breath Tony made a cut-throat gesture to show Steve that it was time to shut up. Yes, sure, they were all on the edge. This very moment Ultron was working on destroying the earth, but Steve couldn’t be so dense.

Bruce was gladly pointing it out to him, his tone just sharp enough to make Tony worry. No green incident here, please. “You brought her to the tower. To the lab. Which is supposed to be a safe place. I work there. You didn’t call, you didn’t give us a warning. You brought her there. I could have torn the whole building down, do you realise that?”

No, judging by Steve’s face, he so obviously hadn’t thought of that. “I didn’t…”

Bruce wasn’t done. “It’s a constant fight against the Hulk. Sometimes my control is slipping and it’s more than enough to have to handle the Hulk. It’s enough that he wants to come out, but now somebody wanted him to come out and for what? Wreck a city? Kill a couple of hundred people? What for? Nothing. You guys had been taken out. Tony was busy with Ultron. They just could have gotten away, but instead she decided to use me as a weapon. Cold and merciless. And then you brought her to the tower. So, please, get out off my sight.”

Steve opened his mouth, probably to protest or to explain, but Tony shook his head. Don’t. Wrong moment, wrong place. Bruce needed some time to relax, to breathe and then Steve had to come up with a really good apology. At least for now Steve decided to let them be and indeed turned around and walked away. A second later Tony could hear Bruce releasing a staggered breath and Tony instantly squeezed his shoulder. “Everything okay?”

“For now… just do me a favour and stick around me for the rest of the ride.”

“Sure thing.”

“And if you want to go to the restroom, send Loki over to me.”

Tony was ready to laugh, but he realised the very same second that Bruce wasn’t making a joke. “What? Really? The prince of darkness?”

Bruce shrugged, leaning back in his head, letting his eyes slide closed. “I am starting to sympathize more and more with his point of view…”

Now that was terrifying. Just to be sure… “Which one?”

“The one about killing people that are clearly up to no good.”

“Bruce…”

“Yes, yes, I know… but he is right about them, Tony. Way too many things have already happened in this incredibly short amount of time. They’ve caused so much damage… Just imagine she wouldn’t have used me to do this to Johannesburg, but she would have done it herself. Would we even have a conversation? If it hadn’t been me but a machine gun?”

No, they wouldn’t be having a discussion. There was no fucking difference. Pulling the trigger herself or unleashing the Hulk on the city was the very same thing. “I get it… I really do, but nonetheless you are not going to…”

Bruce made a dismissive gesture. “I’m trying to keep my hands from getting dirty as long as I still can… despite the Hulk. But if Loki decides to do something about this… don’t expect me to step in.”

Tony appreciated honesty and there was no way in hell anyone could Bruce fault for thinking like that. Hopefully they were all going to die, so things would work themselves out.

 ***

So Tony didn’t die. Lots of other people did. At this point madness should have stopped to be able to shock Tony. He had seen his fair share. Raising an entire city from the ground and wanting to smash it back against the earth to eradicate all life was a new level of crazy.

A thought crossed Tony’s mind several times – maybe he should have taken a look at his wrist. Because there was no way he was going to walk away from this. It would only be fair. He may not have created this murderous robot, but Loki was right – Tony had kept the fucking sceptre and this was the result. Dead people.

During all of it Tony could only hope that his friends were fine. That most of them were going to make it. They were trying to fight off Ultron’s army while Tony was desperately trying to find a way to get that rock back down. Which probably wasn’t going to happen. The only solution was to blow up the city, destroy the rock before he could destroy the rest of the world. Pulverising a few thousands people’s homes.

Tony needed Thor to do that and he needed the fucking core to remain untouched by the robot army. And of course Ultron would send every single one of them to go after the core. Over the coms Tony told everyone to get their ass there, because it would all be over if Ultron got his sleazy hands on it. His heart was skipping a beat when he got his eyes on his friends. Sure, every now and then he had heard one of them over the coms, but it always sounded like background noise. Bruce was fine and still green, good to know. Barton, Romanoff, Steve, Thor and the android which Tony was definitely going to call ‘Vision’.

The Maximoff twins joined them and Tony felt his stomach sinking. She seemed mostly fine, blood was running down the side of her face, the look on her face haunted. She was here and the man who had stated that he would kill her was nowhere to be seen. Tony knew she wasn’t a complete idiot and Loki hadn’t been subtle. No, they were perfectly aware of what was going to happen as soon as Ultron was dealt with. What better way to let somebody disappear than right here in the chaos? No questions asked and even if – Well, one of the robots must have got him. Not taking his eyes off the witch Tony addressed the one Asgardian present. “Thor, where is your brother?”

“Do not worry, Stark. My brother is perfectly able to take care of himself.”

“Yeah, but we kinda need every single person here…” Tony trailed off and another short sigh escaped his throat. No dark and grim murder had happened yet. There was no doubt that it was going to happen, Loki looked like a dark angel of revenge. Casually strolling towards them with two long blades in his hands. No, Tony didn’t want to run into him like this in the middle of the night.

“What’s the rush, Stark? Are you so eager to die?” The grin on his face was as amused as unsettling. Well, at least he was having fun ripping apart some robots.

“Actually no. How about you guys don’t let any of these tin men touch the Vibranium core so everybody on this planet remains alive for a little longer? Good? We’re all on the same page? Yeah? Great.”

Great wasn’t the right word. Actually it was devastating and by the end of the fight Tony felt every bone in his body, he was tired and there was still no time to take a breath. He was almost done with his preparations for the big explosion, the evacuation was done (how did Fury could still have a helicarrier, if Tony was going to survive, he would have to look into this) when everything once again when to shit. Tony had no idea what was happening, but suddenly the rock stopped rising and he wanted to scream.

It was coming down with incredibly speed and this wasn’t going to be the way the world ended. Not with Tony still around. A team effort. Him and Thor did it. Well, Tony, Thor and that amazing Asgardian hammer. By the time the rock blew up Tony had no idea who had made it and who was dead. He picked Thor out of the water, brought both of them back to the shore and then Tony just kept lying there for a while. Breathing. Being in that strange state of just being alive and not knowing. Not knowing how all of this had really ended. How many people they had lost and how many of their own had made it. Tony had no idea and as long as he was still lying here, he didn’t have to know. Unfortunately this short period of time was going to end very soon.

Next to him Thor was stirring, slowly sitting up and Tony didn’t want to. Right now everyone was still fine and they had got every single one of the robots. Complete victory. Clean slate. Tony was just going to lie there for the rest of his life.

“Stark, are you alright?”

Sighing softly Tony slid his faceplate up and nodded. “Yeah… I want a cheeseburger and then sleep for a week. Overall… I am fine. How about you?”

“Good… swallowed some water. Thanks for… the lift. After the explosion I happened to be a bit… dizzy.” Thor sounded embarrassed and Tony wanted to laugh, but then reality caught up with them. After taking a look around Thor turned to Tony and his face was so pale it made his blue eyes weirdly stand out. “Have you any idea where my brother is?”

So there was it. Tony sat up too and shook his head. “Sorry, no clue… I don’t know about anyone after the coms stopped working. I think most of them got out with the Helicarrier… but I don’t know.”

“Where would the Helicarrier go?”

Fucking good question. “Not far I guess. The people they on it are Sokovian. They’ll want to stay in Sokovia…” Or what was left of it. The clean-up would be a nightmare. Tony needed to get everybody here, as many resources as possible. A few thousand people had just become homeless. They needed a place to stay. Right now. Refugee camps? The mere thought made Tony’s stomach turn. What had he told Steve about the Second World War? None of the Sokovians would feel saved and Tony was tempted to agree with them.

“Stark?”

“I don’t know, but it’s a huge flying atrocity. Hard to overlook. Also I am sure they’re trying to get into contact with us as soon as any of the Avengers gets their hands on a radio.”

Thor nodded but mumbled absently. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish for all of them to be fine, but my main worry is not about the Avengers.”

That was no surprise and Tony wanted to say that it was only human, but Thor wasn’t human. “He is your brother, it would be weird if you weren’t concerned about him the most.” Tony made a little pause before adding “I hope he is fine too.”

Tony couldn’t tell what was happening right now. He also lacked the words to describe it, but if he had to try he would say that him and Thor were having a moment. Not in that kind of way. The soft brightness in Thor’s eyes was impossible to miss. A smile was trying to make its way on Thor’s face. His entire expression was the definition of gratefulness. “Thank you, Tony Stark. I appreciate all that you have done for my brother and me. I don’t know if I told you that, but I definitely should have. Also I need to apologize again for attacking you after Ultron made his first appearance. I acted rashly without having any idea what was going on and from now on I will try to earn your forgiveness.”

Really? Out of all people it had to be Thor who rendered him speechless? No, Tony had no idea what to say, so he smiled. Now that he still could.

“Uhm… we should get going… find the Avengers and your brother.”

 ***

20 minutes later Thor and Tony landed on the Helicarrier and reality decided to take it easy on them. Steve was instantly there to greet them and Tony was so happy to see him, he would have almost given him a hug. Not just Steve. Natasha, Clint and Vision (Tony was going to stick with that) were also there, beat up but fine. The relief lasted three wonderful seconds until Tony realised that Bruce was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Loki.

It didn’t help when Tony spotted the Maximoff girl sitting in a corner, her head hanging low, not saying a word, not looking at anyone. Tony didn’t speak up, but raised an eyebrow and shot Steve a questioning look. The Captain had the decency to look slightly uncomfortable. “Her brother didn’t make it…”

Yes, that was sad, but Tony couldn’t say that he felt any pull on his heartstrings. A lot of people had died in Johannesburg, a lot of people had died today and both Maximoff twins were responsible for that. No sympathy from Tony there. It might make him a terrible person, but Tony was actually displeased by seeing her alive and kicking. Not because he wanted her dead, no. If she was here, what did that mean for Loki? Had there been a confrontation? Had Loki not walked away from it?

“Any of you seen my brother?”

Clint answered with a way too casual “No” and Tony decided, yeah, him and Thor had definitely bonded. “Fuck you, Clint. He was on our side the entire time unlike other people.”

“Yeah and? This was about the entire planet. The planet he is currently living on. What was he supposed to do?”

Tony wanted to laugh and desperately wanted to pick a fight. A cheap distraction, but it suddenly became blatantly clear that he preferred Loki to Clint and he wasn’t going to let him talk shit about him. Not with the witch in the same room. “Cute. You just described somebody else’s motivation.” No need to be subtle, Tony directly pointed at the Maximoff girl.

He would have said a lot more if Thor hadn’t stepped forward, suddenly looking like a completely different man. Gone was light, replaced the most dangerous kind of rage. The silent one. “Are you really foolish enough to believe that Loki and I were obligated to this fight? That Loki had to do anything to save his own skin? My brother and I could have left any second. Leave this world and you all to die. He doesn’t even owe you a debt. If my brother doesn’t come back to me… I will leave all of this behind.”

Tony wasn’t looking forward to that, but he could understand. What would keep Thor here? To him they must look like an army of self-destructing lunatics. Steve couldn’t help himself, he instantly wanted to jump in as a mediator. “Thor, please, I know you are…”

Thor made a dismissive gesture, clearly not interested in what Steve had to say. “You abandoned us in Seoul, Captain Rogers and I see the villain who brought death and destruction over us sitting over there. Unchained. Seemingly free. When her change of heart was born out of necessity, fear for her own life, not honest intention.”

“It’s a little more complicated.”

“It isn’t.”

Tony knew whose side he was going to be on in this fight. A fight that never really started, because Friday suddenly talked into his ear. “Boss, message incoming from Doctor Banner.”

Before Tony knew what was happening he was letting out a relieved sob. “Oh thank god…”

Everybody’s eyes were on him and Tony took off his helmet, so they could all listen to Bruce. “You gave me a scare there, Brucie Bear. Where the hell are you?”

“Tony? Thank god, you are okay. I couldn’t get a connection until now. I’m almost back at the tower.”

What the hell?

“Uhm, I know the green guy is pretty fast, but I wasn’t aware that he was such a good swimmer. Mind to share the details?”

“The other guy hijacked Ultron’s quinjet… I picked up Loki and now we’re almost…”

It was shockingly endearing how Thor stalked towards the helmet, as if he was talking direct to it, instead of talking to Bruce via it. “My brother is with you? Is he alright?”

“Thor? Am I on speaker? Good to hear from you… Loki is with me, yes. He is… Listen, he has a pretty nasty head wound. I patched him up as well as I could with what I have in the jet. As soon as I am at the tower I’ll take care of him. He’s unconscious, but he should be fine.”

Every single one of them? Every single of them had come out fine? Tony felt like his legs were about to give in. Thor’s reaction was quite different. “Head wound?”

“Yes, from what I can tell something must have hit the back of his head with full force. I guess he will be able to tell us when he regains consciousness. Where are you guys? Is everyone okay?”

Tony was about to replay when he realised that there was no time, Thor was raising his hammer and walking towards the Maximoff girl.

“Thor!”

“She tried to kill my brother!”

Ironically enough that phrase had her on her feet, staring wide eyed at Thor who admittedly had never looked scarier. “You will pay for this!”

“Thor!” Both him and Steve were shouting as they caught up with the god. “You don’t know if that was her.”

“Who else?!”

“How about one of the thousands of robots?” Steve was making a fair point and Thor was growling. “None of these pathetic creatures would have been able to sneak up on Loki! I know she did it, because she knew Loki was the only one who was looking right through her! Just look at you! How you let her sit among you when she is the reason for all the destruction you’ve just faced.”

Tony knew he was going to regret this, but stepped between Thor and the witch. Mostly because he didn’t want to her to start using her powers. “Thor, listen, buddy! I know, this is fucked up! I’m with you, I know Loki is too smart for a robot to get the better of him, but we simply don’t know! It could have been debris, someone else or… I don’t know… and you don’t know either. We get back to the tower, make sure your brother is alright and then we talk to him. He will tell us. Come on, Thor, you are better than this… You don’t want to start a fight here, please.”

Gritting his teeth Thor slowly lowered his hammer. “I will make sure my brother is alright. If it turns out…” Whatever he wanted to say Thor kept it to himself, he merely turned around and left. Yeah, there was no chance Tony was going to stick around here much longer either. “Bruce, Thor and me are heading back to the tower. Please, don’t let the prince of darkness die.”

“It’s a nasty wound, Tony, but he is going to be alright. I guess I see you in a bit then…”

With the conversation over Tony grabbed his helmet and put it back on. “I guess we’ll all catch up at the tower and please…” Tony refused to even look at her. “Do make me have to explain anything about this to Bruce.”

 

Chapter Text

The distance between New York and Sokovia was quite a thing to overcome and Tony hadn’t been this glad to come home in a very long time. And anxious. He didn’t even take off his suit, just directly headed to the lab. There was some ridiculous ideas in his head, like Loki being still passed out and Bruce stitching him up.

Bruce had called hours ago, Loki had to be awake by now, otherwise his injuries couldn’t be minor. Tony just wanted his own heart to slow down. So Loki would better be fine.

“… must have seen something.”

“How many times do I have to say no before you get it?”

The sound of siblings bickering. Everyone was alright. All tension left Tony’s body and he felt the overwhelming urge to sit down. Or lie down. Sleep for days. He couldn’t though. Real trouble was only starting now.

Loki was sitting in a chair, perfectly white bandages wrapped around his head. His face so much paler than usual. He had definitely seen better days, but he was clearly alive and fine. Weary probably and tired, like all of them.

Maybe except for Thor. It was strange to see this role reversal. Thor being the one who was angry, who looked ready to tear the whole place apart if Loki said the right word.

“Who else could have done that to you?”

“Stark.”

“What?” The rage turned into complete confusion and Loki shook his head when he realised that Thor had misinterpreted that single word. “Over there.” Loki raised his hand and pointed directly at Tony.

Since Thor and Tony had only talked a couple of hours ago, the god of thunder didn’t seem very interested in Tony. Unlike Bruce who had been standing next to them in silence until now. “Thank god, so good to see you. You alright, Tony?”

Yes, but he should feel bad for only now really acknowledging Bruce. Who looked good. Better than most of the times he came back from being the Hulk. “Feeling like a million bucks. How about you?”

“Been better, but doing okay. He is the patient.” Bruce gestured at Loki who screwed his face up. “I am grateful for the treatment, Doctor Banner, but I appreciate to not be referred to as a patient.”

He was so obviously fine, so why had Tony still to ask? “Hey, prince of darkness… how is your head doing?”

“My brother claims that he can’t remember anything.” Thor was growling dangerously and Tony couldn’t remember he had ever seen him this displeases. Well, except for when he had strangled him.

Narrowing his eyes Loki glanced at Thor before shifting his attention towards Tony. “I can talk for myself. I can perfectly remember what happened. I just… I don’t know what brought me down and believe me – it pains me to admit that.”

“Okay, what happened? Feel free to fill me in.” Tony leaned against the table, still feeling the fatigue, but there was no way he was going to let any of them see that. Least of all the Asgardian with the head wound.

“I was destroying some of the robots… something hit me. On the back of the head. I didn’t feel a presence, I didn’t hear anyone coming. I cannot tell what happened.” Loki calmed summed everything up and Thor audibly gritted his teeth. “It’s fairly obvious what happened. The witch realised that we were going to win the fight. She knew that meant she was going to have to pay her debts. So she attacked you.”

“Indeed very likely… but there is no way to be sure.” Loki didn’t sound like he cared that much. Why not? It didn’t change his opinion. He still thought that he had to take care of the Maximoff girl and… Oh…

“Uhm, Loki, you didn’t get a glance of the male twin by any chance?”

It didn’t take anything else to make Loki suspicious. “Why? What do you know?”

“Nothing. Just… Captain told me that he didn’t make it… did you have anything to do with that?”

“No, that wasn’t me. One thing less to worry about though. I cannot say I am displeased.”

Tony swallowed softy, a bitter taste filling his mouth. Not a surprise. None of it. There was no doubt that Loki wouldn’t deny this kill for even a second, so no, Loki didn’t have anything to do with it. What bothered Tony was Loki’s casual way of talking about it. Somebody had died. Lots of people had died and Tony didn’t feel lots of sympathy for the Maximoff kid and yet…

Maybe it was different for Thor and Loki. How old were they? Was death such an abstract concept for them? Far away? Or something aspiring. Fucked up warrior culture.

“Okay… You are fine. Everybody got away. Everybody on the team anyway… That’s good. We’ll deal with the rest. It’s finally time for a drink. You guys want one too? Don’t care, whiskey for everybody.” Tony mentally patted himself on the shoulder for having hidden booze in his lab. Perhaps a bit worrying, but right now he didn’t give a fuck. Somebody… something using his tech had destroyed an entire city, it was time to drink. Also Tony needed to get rid of that disgusting taste in his mouth.

After grabbing a bottle Tony filled three glasses, handing them his friends and took a big gulp from the bottle himself. Bruce raised an eyebrow at him, but not in a reproachful way. More like ‘I’m surprised you’re in worse shape than me’ way.

Thor and Loki both downed their glasses without showing any kind of reaction. Someday Tony was going to find some liquor strong enough to knock them out… and kill any regular human being.

“What about the others? They’re on their way?” Bruce carefully asked, clearly not having any intention to enjoy his ‘we’re all still alive’ whiskey.

“Yeah, they have to get all these people of the Helicarrier… no idea where they’ll go. God, I have to get in touch with the Stark Foundation. We’ve made a fucking mess… Most of the city is gone… Not a single insurance is going to pay for ‘My house got smashed by the rest of the city falling from the sky’. This is going to get ugly…” Tony pulled a face, feeling a knot forming in his stomach. His limbs were hurting, caught in a suit that suddenly seemed to tight. Why was he still wearing it?

“I don’t know about you guys… but I need to sit down for a moment or two… before getting back to work.”

Tony didn’t wait for an answer, but turned around and told Friday to get him out off his suit. Feeling actual fresh air against his skin did help a little bit to clear his head. Nonetheless Tony headed for the bathroom first and splashed his face with water. His reflection in the mirror didn’t look too good. Dark circles beneath his eyes and his beard also had seen better days. Maybe there was a chance to catch one hour of sleep…

He had already called the most important people on his flight back home, help was already on its way, whatever was left of the Iron army. Tony wasn’t naïve, they might have saved most of the people on the floating city, but hundreds, maybe thousands on the ground had been sentenced to death. Because they had failed at keeping the robots from the core, because the whole thing had blown up and come down. There would be corpses. Lots of them and Tony still had to figure out for many of them he was responsible.

Tony couldn’t help but wince when somebody knocked on the door. Bruce probably. The two Asgardians weren’t known for their consideration. “Yeah?”

As expected Bruce slipped into the bathroom and Tony needed less than a second to realise that the other one was checking on him. There was no way to make Bruce look even more worried. What a mixed bag. Part of Tony appreciated that Bruce cared so much that he couldn’t help himself and the other part of him… wanted to tell Bruce to fuck off. Which wasn’t fair.

“Just wanted to make sure you’re alright… or as alright as anyone can be right now. I thought maybe you didn’t want to talk about everything in front of them.” Bruce shrugged and looked a little bit sheepish to be honest.

Tony shook his head. “I’m good and… Thor is a friend and call me crazy, but I trust Loki. He was true to everything he said and he helped us out. You don’t need to worry I could talk freely in there.”

“Okay, but maybe I couldn’t.”

That came as a surprise and Tony’s eyebrows went up, he felt on high alert. “Alright? Something you wanna share?”

Only now Tony began to see that Bruce didn’t look that much different than him. Dark circles beneath the eyes. Had there been so much grey in his hair two days ago? The haunted look hadn’t yet left his face and the not so subtle anger was coming back. Perhaps Tony didn’t deserve better, but Bruce definitely did.

“I thought about leaving… I didn’t just think I had a very clear idea. I was on that quinjet and I wanted to leave. The other guy wanted to leave. Get away from all of this. I would have left. All of you, but…” Bruce trailed off and Tony swallowed hard. The mere idea of Bruce disappearing made him feel like the whole thing wasn’t over. Like there was still a lot to fear. Like they weren’t going to walk away from this after all.

“Leave in like… never coming back?”

The paleness and the dark expression on such soft eyes were answer enough. Tony was beginning to feel dizzy, but he instantly fought it. No, this wasn’t how Tony Stark was dealing with things. If there was one thing he needed it was reasonable people around him. Bruce was his friend and Tony knew where these thoughts were coming from. They had been doing fine. Before Johannesburg. That damned witch…

“I don’t know. Maybe. It wasn’t me who made that decision, but the other guy. Honestly… I was okay with it. It seemed to make sense and it still kind of does. “ Bruce muttered the words without real conviction and Tony was jumping at the chance to make him realise that this was stupid. “No, it doesn’t. Where would you go? You’ve been living here for quite some time now… every other place sucks in comparison to this.”

“Tony…”

“Yes, I know what you were thinking, but I’m not even going to go there, because it’s bullshit. It was not your fault. None of it. You should know that. You pointed it out when Clint was trying to make Loki look bad. You cannot be blamed for what the Hulk does. Yeah, now you’re giving me that look… that it’s too dangerous for you to even be around people. Bullshit. We were doing amazing. What happened is all on her. She did the same thing to all of you.”

Bruce laughed drily, shaking his head. “I know and who else went berserk? That was only me, Tony.”

“Yes, because Loki was there to snap Thor out of it. Do you really think that Thor wouldn’t be able to lay an entire city in ruins? That Cap couldn’t destroy a couple of buildings with people inside of them? That didn’t happen, because someone else was with them. Because they were inside and probably because… she wanted them disabled. She wanted something different with you… This is going to sound ugly, but… we can’t protect ourselves from everything. That’s impossible… It’s ugly and horrible that she got us… but you taking the fall for it is just wrong.”

Tony didn’t know how he could make Bruce understand this. It was so easy to see when you weren’t the one with the actual blood on your hands.

Then again… Tony felt a cold shudder running down his spine. He knew that he hadn’t created Ultron. His mind was capable of comprehending this fact. The sun is rising in the east. Ice is cold. Fire is hot. Tony did not create Ultron. Simple.

Yet it didn’t feel like that. So yes, Tony could understand and he doubted that any reassurance was going to make Bruce feel better. They couldn’t all be like Loki. Who seemed to have instantly get over the fact that he had been used as a tool.

Well, except for the nightmares…

Maybe this was the wrong way. Tony shouldn’t try to make Bruce believe that everything was alright when he clearly didn’t feel like that. Perhaps it would be better to remind Bruce why he had changed his mind himself. “You didn’t leave. You are still here. Why?”

“I…” Bruce shrugged and for a second he seemed to actual wonder what had happened to change his mind. “I saw Loki… he was lying there. Motionless. I knew he would die if I didn’t pick him up, so… it kind of snapped me out of it. All of it… I don’t know…”

“That’s a pretty good reason, don’t you think?” Tony tried a smile and Bruce huffed, but he clearly agreed with him. “I just… I was so ready to leave. I’ve hurt enough people for various lifetimes, but I… how am I supposed to deal with it if one of you guys gets hurt because of me?”

Again, they were adults and both of them knew that there was no absolute security. I would be naïve to pretend that Bruce wasn’t a risk. Yet there were ways to control the situation and they had been doing fine. Hell, Bruce hadn’t even hulked out during an Ultron attack. They had been doing fine. Until the little witch had come along and what were the chances?

“That’s not going to happen. We’re going to work on this together. You know that’s not some empty phrase. We’ve built Veronika and we go from there. If it makes feel you better we can also go back to the tranquilizers idea. I’ll help you. We now have a sorcerer at our disposal. He might have some ideas too… and now the selfish part… I really do need you around here. My sanity depends on it. Just look at the other people hanging out here.” Tony offered him another smile. He wasn’t naïve enough to believe that all of Bruce’s doubts were going to fade away. Good intentions weren’t going to do that.

But the important thing was that Bruce wasn’t to believe they could find a solution. Tony wasn’t a great empath, but he knew that Bruce didn’t desire anything else.

“Okay…”

One single word, but for now it would have to suffice.

“Awesome.” Enough of that talk, Tony wanted just a few minutes of calmness. Without having to worry about the fate of an entire country or losing one of his closest friends. Tony didn’t have a lot of those. After giving Bruce’s arm a squeeze Tony pushed open the door and almost instantly bumped into Thor. Really?

“I am sorry, Stark, but I need to talk to Banner.”

“Right here, what’s wrong?”

Thor’s expression was partly grim, partly exasperated. “My brother refuses to rest. I told him to lie down again, but he has never listened to me. Especially when he is sick.”

Bruce was quite good at not showing Thor what kind of conversation they’ve had just a second ago. “Technically he is not sick… but you are right… he should rest. You think Loki is the kind of guy to listen to his doctor?”

Tony didn’t believe that Loki listened to anybody, but it was worth a try. At least like this he was getting out of the bathroom, which was already feeling way too small.

The next half hour was as peaceful as it could get. Bruce told Loki that he may be a god, but that fact that it was possible for him to get knocked out meant that he could also get a concussion and therefore he had to rest. Thor was finally getting out of his armour and Tony enjoyed another glass of whiskey before getting on the phone and taking care of the Sokovian business. Well, some of it. Sokovia would be an issue for years to come.

Loki had been right. They should have sent the sceptre of Asgard and forget about it…

“Boss, a quinjet has just landed on the roof. Avengers’ identification positive.”

So the whole gang was back at home. Good.

The whole gang turned out to be Natasha and Steve who greeted everybody with a gentle smile. It was good to be alive. “Bruce, good to see you. I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Same here, Cap.”

Tony’s fingers startled to tingle. No need to be a genius to know that something was wrong. “Okay, where is the rest of you? You dropped of Clint on the way? The Vision? That’s his official name by the way. I just made that happen.”

Fuck, how much Tony hated to be right. He could see the little glance Steve shot Natasha. It so clearly meant that he wanted her to kick off the conversation. This wasn’t going to be pretty. Steve was usually so straight forward and was clearly banking on Natasha to do some dirty work for him. Tony had a dark suspicion, but that would just be ridiculous.

“They are still on the plane.” Natasha stated softly. “We thought it would be best to have a little talk first before they come down.”

No fucking way.

Anger was an ugly thing. How quickly it could sneak up on you, wrap his arms tightly around you and refuse to let go. Tony didn’t want it to let go, he couldn’t imagine being without it right now. “You can’t be serious. This is a joke, right?”

Natasha raised one eyebrow at him and Tony could tell that it was all fake. She knew that he had figured her out. “No, this is actually very important.”

“You gotta be shitting me!”

“Tony?” Bruce gave him an unsure look. “What’s going on?”

Was Tony really supposed to say that? After the conversation they’ve just had? Had they lost their minds? “Get your asses back on the jet. Right now. Forget it.”

“Stark… you might fill us in what is happening.” Thor was stepping forward, mostly confused, but already suspicious.

Damn it. How could they be so stupid. Tony stared at Steve, pleading with his eyes to get back on the plane and fuck off before Bruce figured out what was going on. How much time did they have? Seconds? “Steve, come on…”

Tony was going to rip a hole into them later, right now they just had to get out of here.

“Oh, let them stay, Stark. I will gladly take care of it.”

For a second Tony closed his eyes in frustration. One could count on the prince of darkness to catch on. Loki was back on his feet, shimmering in green light, holding two very familiar daggers. No reason to pretend, that ship had sailed.

Since Loki had no idea what being subtle meant Bruce needed only one more moment to figure it out. The colour drained from his face. No. Tony had just told him that they would look out for each other and now this?

“You have her on the plane?!”

Couldn’t they see what they were doing here? How cruel they were? Tony doubted it, although Steve was raising his hands in what was probably supposed to be a reassuring gesture. “We’re here to talk about this. Make sure nobody gets the wrong idea. Loki, put down the daggers, please.”

Any other time Tony would have laughed. Loki’s facial reaction was showing clear and yet stunned amusement that Steve would ask him such a ridiculous question. Thor was immediately there to join in on the fun and Tony clearly wasn’t the only one who was shaking with anger.

“You brought her here after her vile attempt on my brother’s life?!”

Oh, Tony would be able to forgive that. Loki was the type of person who could deal with being in the same room as anybody. No fear to get out his daggers. No, Tony’s dark rage came from another place.

“I told you! Before I left the Helicarrier I told you! Bruce told you on the quinjet and you bring her here?! Again!? No! You fuck off immediately!”

“Tony, calm down, okay? We’re going to talk about this. It’s a little more complicated.” Nothing Natasha said made any sense to Tony and her calm demeanour made him want to lose it completely. She made it seem like they were overreacting, as if she couldn’t see why this was an atrocious, disgusting thing to do. “The girl has come around. She wants to help, to make up for what she did…”

“Good, so take her to a prison! She is a killer.” Bruce was hissing and Tony could tell that Natasha was finally surprised. Why? Has she been naïve enough to believe that Bruce wasn’t going to be furious if she was the one who said it?

“Everybody calm down for second, please? I know how this looks, but please, we should talk about this altogether. I know what she did was wrong. We all agree on that. Nobody is trying to make any excuses. But she wants to make amends. She lost her brother, she didn’t just walk away from this. Clint talked to her during the fight, he managed to establish a connection. He believes that she can come around. Maybe she already did by helping us, I don’t know. What I do is that second chances are important and that she could do a lot of good with her powers if we help her…”

Once again, Steve’s intentions may be pure, but he couldn’t be so fucking naïve or forgiving. Where was that famous sense of justice?

“Help her?!” Bruce’s voice was wavering and everybody went on high alert.

For whatever reason Natasha stepped forward. “Bruce…”

“Romanoff!” Tony hissed her name to hopefully make her understand that she wasn’t helping, she was on the wrong side of his argument.

“I would still like to suggest a very simple solution to this problem.”

Even with a bandage around his head Loki looked incredibly menacing and Tony didn’t feel too glad about him and Bruce being in one room like this. Steve didn’t make things any better. At least his sense of justice was somewhat kicking in. But why the hell would he get into Loki’s personal space? Tony knew that look. He had seen it two years ago on the helicarrier. When Steve had been looking for a fight. Had he known that Tony would go for it? Because Loki just might…

“I’ve had enough for your threats. That girl’s brother died saving Clint’s life. She was willing to sacrifice her own life to destroy Ultron. I will not tolerate your casual talk about ending even more lives. I hope I’m making this clear – Nobody is going to hurt her. You are not going to do anything with that dagger. I think I understand how you think about human lives, but we are not like that. We are not killers. We don’t kill people who did the wrong thing. You are the best example of that.”

No way in hell. Steve couldn’t possibly be comparing them…

His little speech did definitely make an impression. Not on Loki though. He was grinning. “Perfectly clear, Captain. You are not killer, you are just embracing one with open arms.”

“You better…”

Steve didn’t get a chance to say this probably incredibly stupid thing, because he had already set off all of Thor’s defence mechanisms.

“Captain, I want to make something clear too. If you ever imply again that my brother is anything like the witch you are protecting for some reason or show open hostility towards him, I will no longer stand by in silence.”

The room went silent. Tony was sure that nobody was breathing. Not even Bruce. How had they gotten here? A couple of hours after Ultron’s defeat and they were openly threatening each other. There was that look in Steve’s eyes. A realisation that he might have gone one step too far. Obviously. Nothing mattered more to Thor than Loki. How could anyone forget? Besides that Thor was completely right, those two cases couldn’t be compared. It was insulting.

“We’re just looking for the best possible solution. Something has to be done about her and by the end she made the right choice. She is not the right path now…”

Bruce’s dark glare shut Natasha up instantly. “Good, then let her go down that right path. It leads to a prison. She killed people, we all know that. We have the weapon she did it with. She needs to be held accountable for that… and maybe me too. She sets one foot in here and I will be gone.”

Those were good words to end this fight. “I agree. By the way this is still my tower. The huge ‘A’ on top of it doesn’t mean shit when it comes to that. My place and you better don’t even think about letting her off that plane. Take her away. Now.”

 ***

Somehow they managed to all get out of this room alive. Thor had vouched to make sure Loki stayed in bed, Bruce was hiding out in the lab and the fucking plane was gone. That didn’t mean that Tony could catch a break.

At least they were sitting at a table now. Actually talking about this without other people around that were likely to lose their minds at any second. Rightfully so.

“No. Over and over again. No. Just having her in the same with building as Bruce is horribly cruel and even dangerous. What she did to him is unforgivable, Steve. I can’t believe that you’re even suggesting this.”

“I don’t want to believe that there is someone who cannot be changed.”

“We’re not talking about a small-time criminal here.”

“I know. I don’t want to sound like her lawyer, but I talked to her. She knows that she did something wrong and she wants to make amends. We have to give her the chance to do that.”

“So knowing that something was wrong does make it alright? Making amends – fine. How about going to prison? That would be a good start.”

“I see what you are trying to say and you are not wrong. But these are not ordinary circumstances. You’ve seen what she can do and we partly owe this victory to her. She can do what nobody of us can do and there might come times when we need these powers.”

“We already have an incredibly powerful sorcerer on the team. He will do.”

“Loki is not an Avenger.”

“The last time I checked there were no qualifying examination and no contract you have to sign. He fought with the team, he is an Avenger.”

“By that logic she is an Avenger too.”

“You can’t be serious… Stop doing that. Stop comparing them. We’re going to lose Thor over this. We have clear proof that Loki couldn’t control what he was doing. Her? She released the Hulk on a city in cold blood, knowing what she was doing. It’s not the same.”

“So we completely forgive Loki, because his trauma was physical, but we’re not going to take into consideration what she has gone through?”

“Give me a break. Everybody has a shitty past. Most people get over it without joining up with a robot to destroy the world.”

“She was on the wrong side, there is no denying that, but first Hydra had a hand in that and then Ultron. I’m not going to excuse what she has done, but… look at it like that… Do you know a prison that could keep her locked up?”

“Without SHIELD… admittedly no.”

“Okay and don’t you think that these powers could be the most amazing asset if they were used to do good? All the people that could be saved?”

“Sure…”

“Then let’s look at it like this  - the only means we have to make sure she doesn’t have another change of heart is constant surveillance. We are the only ones who can do that. Yes, you could build some cage to lock her in and then? Then all the potential is going to waste. Then we’ll have to ask ourselves the next time if we couldn’t have saved more people with her help. I don’t ask anyone to trust her, Tony. I am asking for a chance. Maybe I am wrong, maybe she will turn her back on us, but right now I am not willing to cast her aside… not when she could do so much and we would be around all the time. What is the alternative? Do you want to let Loki kill her?”

“Of course not…”

“Then help me with this. With Friday around we would always know what she is up to and what better is there to try to make up for something than actually making a difference? Saving lives. Or we just lock her up when we could do so much more…”

“I don’t like this. As much as I would like to believe that she isn’t rotten to the core…”

“During the invasion, would have believed that Loki is anything but a murderous psychopath?”

“Leave Loki out of this.”

“Alright…”

“I can’t just let her get away unpunished.”

“Her brother is dead. That’s nothing she’ll ever recover from. More pain than imprisonment could ever cause her.”

“So we tell Johannesburg that there isn’t going to be prison, because her brother died?”

“What prison, Tony? There is none.”

“Even if… would you trust her in the field? Could we ever risk bringing her along?”

“We already did that.”

“Okay, you kinda have a point there.”

“An attempt. That’s all that I’m asking for.”

“She can never be around Bruce.”

“That should be manageable.”

“What about Loki?”

“That’s… maybe after all this time… he would be inclined to go back to Asgard?”

“You want to kick Loki out for her? Forget it. My house, my rules. He stays.”

“Sorry… but… he’ll have to deal with it. You know that he can’t just kill people just because he thinks they’re… evil because of the sceptre.”

“Okay… the upstate facility. It’s not ready yet but… there are no higher security standards. She doesn’t get to leave without permission. Not a single step outside, you hear me? And I want a complete evaluation. Does she even know what she is doing with her powers? What can she do? And she is not going to help us with anything as long as we aren’t sure that she could actually help.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Good… but somebody needs to constantly be at the facility.”

“I’ll do it. Natasha will probably help.”

“Bruce and the Asgardians stay at the tower with me. Vision should go with you. He freaks Loki out and I would feel better having somebody… supernatural around her. God, this is going to be nightmare to explain to Bruce and to Loki…”

“Thanks Tony. I appreciate it. You’re not going to regret it.”

“I am not so sure. Just be careful.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, but you are advocating for someone here… I can see the word ‘love’ on your wrist from over here. Being nice can end up killing you.”

 ***

It was past midnight when Tony finally got to be alone. By now aching for his hot shower and a couple of hours of sleep. How fucked up did a situation have to be if Tony Stark wanted to sleep?

With lazy and heavy gestures Tony stripped off clothes, letting fall to the bathroom floor. He felt like falling asleep right now. Even with his eyes open Tony didn’t see anything for a couple of seconds. Perhaps his body was already shutting down from exhaustion, demanding some rest.

With a sigh Tony raised his arm to rub his hand over his eyes, but he froze mid-motion.

A couple of hours ago he had experienced sudden and intense anger. An emotion so powerful it replaced every other idea in his mind. It made him want to yell and to move. Impossible to stay still.

This was different.

Just as intense. Everywhere. Completely paralysing. Tony was shell-shocked. Staring at his wrist.

The hit on the back of his head. Loki had lost conscious. His magic must have slipped.

Ultimately it didn’t matter though.

Big, black, scrolled letters decorated his lower arm and they didn’t promise a noble and tender sacrifice out of love but appalling and despicable and betrayal.

Chapter Text

Half a vodka bottle later Tony felt like he was again capable of thinking. Not quite like he was supposed to though. His trains of thought were way too fast. Uncoordinated. Going into several directions at once. His hand which was still holding the bottle was shaking. Tony couldn’t be bother. He was feeling cold and jumpy. During the last five minutes he had looked over his shoulder at least 10 times.

Wasn’t it ridiculous? Even though you were fully aware that you were freaking out and drifting into panic mode there was nothing you could do about it. Tony knew that he was in a state in which he couldn’t draw logical conclusions. Or even make sense of what was happening to him.

There was a racing heart in his chest and a brain drenched in stress hormones in his head. What a perfect combination.

Tony swallowed a few more gulps of vodka, praying that it would take effect instantly, so he could finally try to understand what was happening to him. The liquid burned like acid in his throat and Tony coughed, ready to throw up at any moment.

That didn’t happen.

Instead Tony sank down to the floor, leaning his head against the wall, thinking about what a bitch time was. Always moving in a straight line. No turning back. Tony was never going to get back this sweet state of ignorance. It did not matter how much he wanted it. Now he felt like an idiot. A naïve fool who didn’t know any better and who was going to face the consequences.

“Boss, I…”

“I told you to shut up, Friday… I need to think.”

There was only one person Tony might have talked to and Jarvis was gone. What was the point? Shouldn’t he be already in the suit? Strike first before the other one did? But why would he even do that? None of it made sense. Or maybe Tony just didn’t want to see it.

One last mouthful of vodka then Tony would be all logical and smart about this. Not looking at this as his fate, but something he had to deduce. Maybe a riddle, something, anything.

Linguistics. Rule number one – words didn’t mean anything. They were just a couple of letters in a specific order. The speaker and the context gave them meaning.

Tony didn’t have either.

How many ways to interpret something as simple? Tony could spend all night grasping at straws or he might just accept the perfectly obvious. He was going to be murdered. By a friend.

Or somebody merely he considered a friend. Maybe Tony didn’t have any friends at all. After having found out that someone was going to kill you seemed like the perfect time to be melodramatic.

Okay, logic. Tony still didn’t have context. There was always more than one interpretation. This thing had been created to fuck with his mind. What would be the first reasonable step to do in his situation?

Getting into his suit and start firing away.

Tony grunted. That would be the easiest way to get killed, right? Launching an attack would only mean starting a fight and forcing the other one to defend themselves.

Self-fulling prophecies.

Releasing a long shaky breath Tony rested his forehead against the vodka bottle. He was smart, brilliant even. Fuck that, Tony was a genius. He could find a way to deal with this. It was just one word. 1 000 000 ways to interpret it. Half of them completely harmless, accidents, coincidences.

The other half… meant that Tony was probably going to die in a violent, unexpected way. Caused by someone he had decided to put his trust in…

Technically that could happen any time, even without Tony ever looking at his wrist.

“Okay, Stark, you can totally freak out over this… or act like a fucking grown-up and don’t do anything about it.”

If Tony even so slightly changed his behaviour because of the curse he would be playing into it. Most probably this was the whole point. Making people lose their mind, drive them right into paranoia and then they brought about their own doom.

Tony was the perfect candidate for that. He had lost his mind over smaller things. With another sip of vodka his decision was made. It didn’t hurt to be careful, right? But he wasn’t going to alienate anybody by suddenly distancing himself.

Hadn’t he already done that? After his talk with Steve the team was split up. Half of it would even live in a different location. Was that still a good idea? Where did Tony want to be in all of this? He had no idea… Running away was not an option. Holing himself up in his lab? Try to be the nicest person ever?

“Friday…” Tony’s voice was hoarse and for some reason it hurt his throat to talk.

“Yes, boss? How can I help you?”

Double up the security measures? Just in case. Create an instant-kill protocol for the suit?

“What is he doing?” Tony started to peel off the label of the bottle, just to give his fingers something to do.

“Sleeping, boss. Like everybody else.”

“Good… something I am not going to do tonight. We need to go over all security protocols… and we might need a list of scenarios that would instantly allow you to reclassify any Avenger as a hostile.”

“Any Avenger, boss?” Friday sounded doubtful, but Tony refused to go for the easy explanation. There were too many possibilities.

“Yes, any Avenger… Let’s go.”

 ***

Tony had spent way more time without sleep than about 12 hours and yet he hadn’t felt more tired in a very long time. Perhaps things were going to be like that from now on. It was early when Tony left his lab, new and improved bracelets covering his wrists. Nice double effect. The word was invisible again and Tony wasn’t unarmed.

That wasn’t such a big change, right? There was no way to know who you might run into…

Tony tried to not ask Friday where everyone was at this exact moment and he definitely wasn’t going to look over his own shoulder. Eventually Tony knocked on Steve’s door. His heart was still beating too fast, it had been doing that from the second he had stepped out of the lab.

It would probably never go back down to its normal rate.

The door was being opened and there was Steve, looking well rested and great as always. He also noticed that this wasn’t quite the case with Tony. “Hey, are you alright?”

No, not at all, but what was he supposed to do about it. “Didn’t sleep… Listen, we gotta talk. Can I…” In the middle of the phrase Tony realised that he didn’t want to come inside. “Can we talk?”

“Sure.” Steve smiled and moved aside to let Tony in. Fine, then we was just going to start talking. “I am a bit worried about… where we go from here. Half of the team living here, the other half upstate… I don’t want us to drift apart. The last couple of days were rough… I can’t remember us ever fighting that much. I just want to be sure that we’re going to have each other’s back… no matter what happens.”

Steve’s eyes were growing wide, he seemed genuinely shocked that Tony would even have such thoughts. “Tony… we disagree about a lot of things, but… we’re still a team. I’m… I don’t want you to feel like you can’t count on me. Things are difficult right now, I know that. You have your doubts about Wanda and that’s alright, I can see where you are coming from. We’ll work this out. Yes, part of the team is going to live somewhere else, but it’s not like we’re going to stop working together. Also I count on being at the tower a lot. I don’t want you to think that this is… us splitting up.”

“The most important thing for me is that we can trust each other… Friday is at the upstate facility, so communication shouldn’t be the issue. Just… keep talking to me, alright?” The words felt weird when they left Tony’s mouth, but he couldn’t think of another way to voice his thoughts.

“Tony, what is wrong? Yesterday we sat down and talked about things. Why do you think that that doesn’t apply anymore?”

“I don’t… I just… You guys are moving out, but we’re not getting a divorce. Nat, Clint and you, you are always welcome here. Your rooms are still here, that’s not going to change. I just want that to be clear. Okay?”

“I never expected anything else, Tony. I know I can count on you and I want you to do the same.”

Tony was going to try. “Good… Have a good flight. Keep me updated.”

“Sure thing.”

Steve smiled and Tony smiled back before turning around and the door was being closed behind him. That had been a good conversation. As good as Tony could possibly hope for. He needed Steve in this.

When was his heartrate finally going to slow down?

“You don’t want them to leave.”

Tony winced, the sudden sound of Loki’s voice getting underneath his skin. He was right there, at the other end of the corridor, leaning against the wall.

Him appearing out of nothing didn’t help Tony to calm down and he forced himself to take a long breath before even trying to start talking to him. “Of course I don’t want them to leave. They’re my team. Closest thing to a family that I have.”

Loki raised an eyebrow, he didn’t quite seem to understand. Maybe because he had some relatives who were still alive. “The only reason they have to leave is the girl. Because some of them are foolish enough to think that she can be saved. This whole problem would be so terribly simple to take care of.”

The constant tension and nervousness inside of Tony vanished within a single second and turned into raging anger that he could barely contain. In the back of his mind he was aware that Loki should be the very last person he should direct his anger at. Yet Tony couldn’t help himself, he thought of the word on his wrist and what Loki had just said and that was too much to take.

“Could you for the love of talk stop this casual talk about how you want to murder someone!?”

That outburst only got Loki to arch an eyebrow. “You didn’t complain about that before.”

“Yeah! Because the world was about to end and we had to fight an army of robots and I didn’t have the fucking time to deal with this bullshit! Yes, I know that you aren’t responsible for anything that happened during the invasion, but people died! It’s fucking disturbing that you are so eager to kill somebody!”

Unimpressed Loki pushed himself off the wall. “You know my reasons. She willingly opened herself up to a dark force that will inevitably consume her and the people around her. She is nothing but a vessel for death and destruction.”

“Yes, wonderful, really. I’ve heard that one before. You may be right about all of that or maybe you’re just a theatrical asshole. What do I know? She is still a human being and when a human being doesn’t hold you at gunpoint or threatens to kill someone else, you don’t murder them. I don’t care how you do things on Asgard, here we try to reason with people before we stab them in the back!”

He was yelling. Tony shouldn’t be yelling. Steve would hear, he would come out. Tony shouldn’t be yelling at Loki. He would upset him.

“I guess I understand.” Loki crossed his arms in front of his chest and any other day Tony would have appreciated the ‘I don’t give a fuck about your feelings’ sarcasm. “Although my situation and hers are entirely different, they will be treated the same. Complete forgiveness for the both of us. Thank you for being so kind-hearted, Tony Stark.”

What a fucking jerk. “I didn’t say that! She is not forgiven, but what am I supposed to do?! There is more where the Chitauri came from and you know it! We almost weren’t able to handle Ultron and without the fucking sceptre we would have screwed when the invasion happened! What are we supposed to do when the next wave comes? I need every help I can get! Does it make me sick what she did? You bet on it! Am I scared of what she can do? Yes! But I am more scared of all of us ending up dead, because we’re not strong enough to handle what’s coming. So please, give me a fucking break and stop talking about murdering her. Stop talking about murder altogether.”

Stunned was too much to describe the expression on Loki’s face. Surprised? Maybe. “I have my reasons.”

“Sure and what happens if someone else gives you a reason? That isn’t as widely accepted as mass murder?”

Loki’s lips became a thin line and the most uncomfortable silence Tony had ever experienced settled in between them. Eventually Loki nodded and turned to leave. “As long as she doesn’t stay here, I will not be bothered.”

The sound of his steps faded away and Tony wished that he could catch a break. Time for his fucking heart to slow down. Being constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown couldn’t be healthy. Even with Loki gone Tony couldn’t catch a break. At least the next person talking to him was polite enough to clear their throat. “Mr. Stark?”

“Hey Vision, what’s up?”

If the android had any issues with his name, he didn’t show it. He looked pensive and amical as always. Always. Huh. Tony had met him one day ago.

“I don’t want you to think that I deliberately listened in on your conversation… but it was hard to overhear it.”

So much about the yelling. “Sorry, sometimes Loki can be a piece of work.”

Vision nodded but Tony could tell that it wasn’t meant to be in agreement. “Would you allow me to comment on your dispute?”

No, at the moment Tony just wanted to hide out in his lab and go over the security measures again. He didn’t like that people could sneak up on him so easily. Perhaps he would wear an earpiece and have Friday constantly tell him about everybody’s location. Paranoia was a wonderful thing, right? “Go ahead.”

“You are trying to debate human values with a being that is not human. How can you hope to find a compromise when the person you are talking to has not only a completely different set of morals but these morals come from a belief system that has nothing to do with yours.”

“Thor and Loki may not be human but for the most part they are pretty reasonable… and Loki has been hanging out on Earth for about two years. He should have noticed by now that killing people is a no-go.”

“I may be young and lacking experience, but I believe you are taking something for granted that is non-existent. The sacredness of human life may be a universal value, but the harsh reality often looks different. Judges and lawyers bestowing mercy on murderers. The public opinion going easy on them in some cases, condemning them in others. Is it fair to expect a being that was born in another world to make sense of this? After two years?”

Tony clenched his teeth. He didn’t need this right now. There were enough things on his mind already. “Alright, you think I was too hard on him.”

Vision nodded slowly. “I agree with your and Captain Rogers’ decision to spare the young woman. But the Asgardian is afraid. He is so used to hiding it, it became second nature. You are afraid too. Fear easily clouds one’s mind and makes communication harder.”

This was the second time Tony heard Vision say this and he knew that he was right. He had seen it himself. The haunted look on Loki’s face. But what was he supposed to do about it? Especially now… “Thanks…”

Tony wanted to get away and since he had no idea what else to say, he wished Vision a good trip before fleeing back to the lab. He felt more at ease there, a place completely under his control. Like Bruce had said – the safe space.

“Friday… I got a few new ideas for the security system.”

“Boss, I’d like to recommend a couple hours of sleep first.”

“I heard your recommendation and decided to ignore it. Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

 

 

“Boss, doctor Banner wishes to talk to you.”

“Put him through…”

“Tony, what the hell are you doing?”

Now that wasn’t a nice way to start a conversation. “I am in the lab, which means I am working and you are interrupting me.”

Bruce huffed audibly which Tony decided to ignore. He had bracelets that needed to be optimized and a watch to turn into a blaster. Which all didn’t shit since he was going to die anyway.

“You haven’t left the lab in three days. I know you, two days are completely normal and at three days I need to put a halt to this. Have you eaten anything during the last three days?”

No, but that didn’t matter, because Tony had the definite proof that he wasn’t going to die of starvation… Well, technically no, that was still a possibility.

“I am not hungry.”

“Tony, what’s wrong?”

Pausing mid-motion Tony played the thought of just telling him. But how was that going to help? Another paranoid person the tower? One that was one million times stronger than Tony and who sometimes couldn’t control his actions? Now that Tony knew – pretty much everything he did or said could lead him down a certain path. A path that might end up killing him. Better just stay in his lab and not risking anything.

Or was that somehow the exact wrong thing to do? Tony knew that he could continue working on the security forever, it would never be good enough. A neck could be broken so easily. Especially when everybody else around had combat training or ridiculous super powers.

“Nothing’s wrong… I have to get a few things done and then there is the Sokovia mess to take care of.”

Another loud sigh and Bruce was giving up surprisingly quickly. “Okay… I guess I should know better than to try to make you do something… I made lasagne though and I would like not to be the only human at the dinner table for once. Loki and Thor become unbearable when they talk about Asgardian stuff that I’ve never heard of…”

“I’ll think about it.”

Tony ended the call and forgot about it one second later.

 ***

A hand closed around his throat. Not as a threat but with one clear intention. All air was blocked from entering his lungs and Tony instantly felt nausea and panic washing over him.

His legs were helplessly kicking, not touching anything. The hand that was choking the life out off him had lifted him up so easily. With strength that Tony could never fight. His suit was gone, all Tony could do was wrapping this hand around the other’s wrist, only to realise that he didn’t have the power to move it ever so slightly.

Bright spots were dancing in front of his eyes. His lungs started to burn and his body was twitching uncontrollably, yearning for air…

The hand only squeezed harder

 

Gasping for air Tony jerked awake. His throat was hurting, he felt disorientated and confused. He had no time to figure out what was happened, bright light was suddenly filling the room and one of the shelves was going up in flames.

Stumbling to his feet Tony feverishly looked around, trying to spot whoever had tried to attack him. What was going on?

“Boss, are you alright? I am deeply concerned by your accelerated heartrate?”

“What just happened? Who…”

“You evidently had a nightmare, sir. You activated the new repulsor when you woke up.”

What? Still caught up in confusion Tony looked at his wrist, spotting the watch he had only designed yesterday. No, that didn’t mean…

Looking at the destroyed, still burning shelf Tony tried to wrap his head around what had just happened. “That… was me?”

“I am afraid so, boss.”

Shit… Tony sank down to the floor, rubbing both hands over his face. Fuck that curse! What was he even doing? This had happened before. The last time he had almost hurt or even killed Pepper. Did he really want to go there again? Losing his mind over something that he couldn’t control and something that he clearly didn’t even understand?

With shaking hands Tony took off his wrist and stared at the word on his wrist. Which didn’t mean anything. Just some letters, without context. Words were without meaning without context. It was Tony who created the context. This was his life, it was him who wrote the story. This could be something wonderful or something dreadful. Tony could make it whatever he wanted it to be.

Or at least he hoped so…

Vision was right, Tony was afraid. He was scared beyond words. And he was sick of it. When had Tony Stark started to run away?

No, this was going to stop right now.

Getting back up to his feet was embarrassingly difficult and Tony had to admit that he should have eaten something during the last three days. His vision was slightly blurry and Tony couldn’t help but notice that he was a gross mess. A shower was in order. Food first though.

With slow, slightly unsteady steps Tony made his way to the door, but stopped right there. He was still holding the watch in his hand. No, this wasn’t how Tony wanted to write this story. Carelessly he tossed it away and left the lab.

Chapter Text

Shower or food first. Those were the important questions in life. Somebody dying of bad hygiene wasn’t something Tony had ever heard of, but starvation was a rather common thing. Food first. Fortunately it was in the middle of the night and the kitchen was silent, empty. Tony only turned on a small light and then opened the fridge. His stomach was growling painfully and he wondered how he had been able to ignore that for so long.

Tony got everything to make himself a sandwich and set to work. While cutting the bread he tried to remember when had been the last time he had eaten an actual home-cooked meal. Or when had been the last time he had wondered about such trivial things and not about how he was going to die.

Sighing softly Tony sliced up the tomato and then the onions. Two minutes later he was sitting at the kitchen counter, taking a bite of his sandwich. Not bad. Take that starvation.

“Boss, Loki is heading towards the kitchen.”

Tony instantly tensed and closed his eyes for a second. “Thanks Friday.” No, Tony wasn’t going to do anything wrong or stupid. He was going to be nice, should be easy, he liked Loki. Which didn’t mean anything since he had read the reason of his demise.

Context, Tony told himself, he had no context. So he would have to create it himself. A good one.

That decision was made and Tony was a stubborn son of a bitch, he wasn’t going to back off. All that determination didn’t mean that his heart wasn’t racing when he heard the light footsteps. Everything was cool, no worries.

Tony kept chewing on his sandwich, only looking up when Loki made his presence known by talking to him. “Am I interrupting?”

“Just having a midnight snack. What are you doing here?” Tony was doing his best to sound casual, like Loki hadn’t noticed like everybody else that Tony had disappeared for a couple of days.

Cocking his head Loki kept looking at him, perhaps not completely buying what Tony was trying to sell him. “Same thing.”

Loki walked around the kitchen counter and opened the fridge, continuing the everyday normalness. Tony released a deep breath through his nose . That was a good start, right? He was halfway done with eating his sandwich when Loki sat down opposite of him, with a pomegranate and a knife in his hand.

Great, so cutlery was now freaking Tony out. For no reason, Loki easily cut off the top of the pomegranate and then sliced it into pieces. Tony kept watching until Loki had peeled the seeds into a little bowl and started eating them. Okay, they could just sit here in the middle of the night and do this in silence. Completely okay. Tony wasn’t freaked out at all. Nope and…

“You stink.”

Well, goodbye silence, my old friend

“I know. Very eloquent way to start a conversation, Reindeer Games.” Tony would have normally given him the finger, but maybe that still wasn’t the best time to do something like that.

Loki shrugged carelessly. “I thought about saying that you don’t smell good, but that would be an understatement.”

“Well, thank you, Prince of Darkness.” Tony huffed, shocked himself how naturally these words came out. “You look like shit by the way.”

After slipping a couple of seeds into his mouth Loki shook his head, completely unbothered. “That is just not true. I am very attractive.”

And self-confident. “Yeah, the dark rings beneath your eyes really go well with your hair colour.”

This was so going the wrong way, but Tony was nonetheless relieved that they could be in the same room without Tony started to hurl and scream.

The allusion to Loki’s sleeping problems was still a dirty move and he almost felt bad about it when he saw that Loki suddenly stopped chewing. Oh no… Loki knew that Tony knew that he couldn’t sleep. That was definitely something he didn’t want to talk about or they would have done it a year ago. Great, he had walked right into a touchy subject and now Loki was going to be pissed and tell him to shut up and…

“I can’t sleep.”

Tony was left speechless, staring at Loki who was looking at the pomegranate seeds. What was happening right now? Had Loki just outright admitted that he was haunted by nightmares that made him lie awake for half of the night? Technically no, but people were only saying these kinds of things when they wanted the other person to ask.

This could be an even worse idea, but Tony once again decided that the stupid prophecy didn’t matter, that he didn’t give a shit and that he wouldn’t be afraid of normal interactions. Of liking somebody. Of trusting somebody.

“Okay… why’s that?” Tony managed to both sound interested and casual. Loki didn’t care much, he was still looking at the pomegranate seeds, poking them with a spoon. There was no shyness in his voice when he spoke up again, to Tony he seemed somewhat disconnected from his own words. “You’ve said it yourself… For a long time I didn’t see or hear anything. It felt like a whole life or several. Now that I know when I fell from the Bifröst and when I arrived on Midgard… I must have been falling for about 18 months… and during that time I didn’t see anything. Then I stopped falling and there were the Chitauri and… other things that don’t matter. The sceptre. In the void there was nothing. When I left it there was too much. Sometimes when I sleep I feel like I’m back there. Either there is nothing or there is a complete mess in my head. I don’t want either of that. Ever again. So when my dreams take me into that direction… I hopefully wake up and then I don’t go back to sleep anymore. Sometimes I go into the kitchen and eat pomegranates…”

As if to make a point Loki put a single one of the seeds into his mouth, chewing slowly on it.

Tony couldn’t help it, he was openly staring at Loki in disbelief. Everything he had said made perfect sense, but Tony was so shocked that Loki had actually said those things. To him. Those absolutely personal, somewhat scary things.

Tony of all people…

Somebody, Loki of all people, was opening up to him and Tony had absolutely no idea how to react to this. Did Loki even expect him to react? Of course he fucking did. This was Loki. There were 10 million ways to fuck this up and Tony couldn’t do that.

Fuck that, of course he could, Tony didn’t want to fuck it up.

“I know that sounds like a stupid line, but… time helps with that. It’ll get better. That doesn’t help right now so… I suck at giving advice, because… when I can’t sleep… I don’t sleep. I work or watch a stupid movie. You know I really shouldn’t be talking about this… I am the worst person ever to talk about this…” Attempt failed. Tony was going to kick his own ass later on.

While Tony was still beating himself up Loki had raised his head, finally looking at him. A questioning expression, slightly frowning. Almost as if he was confused. “Who but you should talk about it?”

“What?”

Loki still hadn’t lost his seemingly casual attitude as he continued speaking. “Who? One of the two assassins who pretend that they are at ease with themselves when they obviously can’t be? My brother who has never experienced anything bad in his entire life? Whose punishment for causing war and murder was banishment for three days during which he romanced a Midgardian woman? The Captain who doesn’t differ between his dreams and reality, because it’s all the same to him? Doctor Banner who rightfully decides to flee any conflict even within himself? Running away and denial seem to be the common way to deal with conflict…”

Although Loki wasn’t trying to hide his spite Tony felt pretty sure that he was including himself in this little list. “Yeah, I guess that’s I’m doing to. It’s working out great. Look at Ultron.” Tony grumbled mostly to himself. How could he still feel guilty about something when he rationally knew that it wasn’t his fault? Tony hadn’t sewn a couple of corpses together and had shocked them with lightening to bring them to life. The body parts had been lying around in his basement and they had stitched themselves together. And yet there were these similarities…

“Ultron came from the sceptre. All that you could have possibly done was to open a door. Unknowingly. You don’t have the abilities to bend the sceptre to your will or to even analyse it.”

“Geez, what a nice way to tell me that I am stupid.” Tony rolled his eyes and Loki arched an eyebrow at him. “Why do you think it’s an insult when people point out your limitations? The sceptre is filled with unlimited power from a source that might be older than your entire universe. Not even I would be arrogant enough to believe I would be able to handle it.”

Tony made a dismissive gesture. “I don’t like being reminded of the fact that I do have limitations. Also opening a door is bad enough. Look what has come through the door and what it did.”

“SHIELD opened the door for me. Did they feel bad about that?” Loki looked at him expectantly and Tony didn’t know where he was trying to go with this. “That was different…”

“How so? Thanks to the Captain’s adventures 70 years ago everybody knew what they Tesseract could do and they started to mess around with it. For no reason. You at least had good intention. These artefacts have a mind of their own. They decide what they want to do, not you. You shouldn’t lose any sleep over this.” Not very gentle, Loki was merely pointing out facts and for some reason that helped.

“I am not losing any sleep over Ultron.” Now it was the exact situation only vice-versa. Tony wanted Loki ask. Then why should he? Tony hadn’t been subtle, Loki already knew. It was fairly obvious. Maybe Tony just wanted Loki to care. To create a new context. A good one.

But why should…

“What you saw… it’s just a small part. Thousands of Chitauri forces. It’s nothing. This universe is incredibly vast. Then there are other ones. Even bigger. There are full of monster, demons or just people who want to do harm. Then there’s magic. Unlimited. Forces too powerful to be controlled and which might destroy entire galaxies if they are nudged the wrong way. There are millions of nasty places. This planet could end any second in tons of different ways. You know that none of these ways would have anything to do with an invasion. Natural disasters are just as common. Life is fleeting. What you saw is frightening, maddeningly so, but inevitable. There is always going to be a fight. Probably this moment somebody is trying to save a planet somebody or something else. That’s the way things are and have always been.”

“Wow… you really know how to lift people’s spirits. You’re saying that I shouldn’t worry about endless swarms of aliens who want to kill us, because sooner or later they’re going to show up and everybody is going to die anyway.”

Loki reacted by shaking his head. “No. That’s not what I’ve said. This world is young. Mine is old. Very old. I’ve already seen more in the first fifth of my life than you are ever going to see. All existence means that you constantly have to fight. You can decide to be afraid of what you have seen or you can see it as a warning. Something to prepare for, a helpful information. Or maybe you can be afraid of it and still use it to your advantage… moreover the main thing that would interest aggressive species like the Chitauri are powerful artefacts like the Tesseract or the sceptre. Both of them are more or less gone. Now Midgard must seem terribly plain to them. No reason to come here.”

“Couldn’t you have started with that part?” Tony scoffed and Loki shrugged.

There was no denying that this conversation was helping. Tony had no idea if any of Loki’s words might make him sleep better, but Loki was talking to him. Just like he had before. Nothing had changed.

No, that wasn’t true. Five minutes ago Tony would have never thought that Loki might tell him that he couldn’t sleep because he was suffering from nightmares.

Maybe Tony should just tell him. Loki was the one who knew most about this. If there was a chance he could find another meaning to this than the obvious… if they could find a solution for this together… that seemed rather impossible.

“There is something I wanted to ask you.”

Startled Tony looked at Loki who suddenly seemed somewhat sheepish. That was new. No, Tony had never seen that before. What did he even know? A new knot was forming in his stomach, urging him to run away. The last couple of days hadn’t been a bad idea. Why not continue searching for something that could make him feel safe?

Because he was losing his fucking mind, that’s why…

“Shoot…”

“Is there a traditional Midgardian way to thank somebody for saving one’s life?”

Taken aback Tony blinked, at a loss for words. Why did everything come back to life and death? Loki was still looking at him expectantly and Tony quickly shook his head. “No… not really… usually we hope that nobody will ever have to save our life…”

Loki’s face fell. “A pity…. I would have liked to show Doctor Banner my grateful the appropriate way…”

Could this get anymore weird? Tony had no idea anymore what to think. Loki was right in front of him and Tony couldn’t figure him out for the life of him. It seemed utterly impossible. Why not just ask him? Fuck all of this.

“Uhm… you could just say thank you. Bruce is a simple guy, he doesn’t expect anything, but he does appreciate being acknowledged. Like everybody else… There’s also something I want to ask you.”

Loki made a gesture that indicated him to go ahead.

“What are we to you? You’ve spend almost two years here. Are we your friends? Comrades? What? I’m really trying to figure this out and I can’t seem to do it.”

For a second Tony feared that Loki would think that his question was stupid or completely unnecessary. None of that was the case. Instead Loki tilted his head, a very pensive expression suddenly appeared on his face. “I don’t know. I am here because I am forbidden to return home, but I guess I could have left anyway a long time ago. Thor knows that. He likes to pretend that I have to stay here and that it’s going to be like that forever. Perhaps I am doing the very same thing. I guess I am not that eager to get rid of him after all.”

“Okay and what about the rest of us?” Tony shouldn’t ask but the words were already out and impossible to take back.

“I don’t feel any affection for the assassins. At times they merely bore me, then they enrage me with their limited minds. Most of the time I’m feeling indifferent towards them. The Captain loathes me and tries to hide it what makes him very entertaining and easier to tolerate.”

“Steve doesn’t….”

“Oh please. I killed someone he knew. It’s personal for him, he doesn’t tend to be so forgiving when he knows people.” Loki shrugged and judging by his face he really didn’t care. Which was sad and unsettling. Could he be right though? Was that the difference? Loki actually killing Coulson when the Maximoff girl hadn’t hurt anybody he knew. Except for Bruce. Or couldn’t that count because the wounds weren’t physical?

“What… how do you feel about that? That you killed Coulson.” Tony’s voice was wavering and it was naïve to think that Loki wouldn’t notice. “Did you ask that Barton too? About the ones he killed?”

Tony shook his head, Clint had never talked about it and honestly, he hadn’t seemed to be bothered that much. Sure, the constant anger towards Loki for making him do it. But that was all there was to it. Anger towards Loki. Regret? Not so much. Tony had no idea how easy or hard it was to brush something off that you had done being mind controlled.

“I don’t want to talk about Clint but about you. What does it make you feel? Anything at all?” His heart was beating so fast, Tony could feel the blood pumping in his veins, he could hear it. Almost making him dizzy. Was he just as afraid as when he had read what was written on his wrist? There was a certain answer that he wanted from Loki and Tony felt that he wasn’t going to get it.

Loki had not trouble looking at him, straight into Tony’s eyes. Not cold but rather stoic. “Not much. No. I am over 1000 years old. A young man for my kind, but I would have seen civilisations rise and fall if I had lived on Midgard. I have killed people before. Lots of them. It’s Asgard’s duty to watch over the Nine Worlds. I’ve been to more wars than I can count. I’ve used my magic to kill people, blades, arrows and even my bare hands. Agent Coulson was wrong though. I don’t kill for pleasure. It’s a nasty and ugly thing. Sometimes necessary though. I have saved my brother’s life by taking somebody else’s and the other way round. I regret that I killed him, but he was stranger to me. A nameless face. Not different from any other person that died when I brought the Chitauri. Sometimes I know that it wasn’t me but the sceptre. Sometimes I ask myself if there is a difference. Sometimes I wonder if that does even matter.”

Swallowing softly Tony nodded. Vision was right. How were they supposed to understand each other when Tony was human and Loki some sort of god? Loki was over a millennia old and still considered young while Tony was a middle aged man. No, he wouldn’t be able to understand but Tony wanted to try.

They fell silent for a while and Tony eventually noticed that Loki had eaten all of his seeds. How many times was Tony going to make the same decision again to feel okay with it? “Listen… since both of us are damned to stay awake… how about we watch some movie?”

A grin appeared on Loki’s face. “One condition.”

“Yeah?”

“Take a shower first.”

 ***

Natasha showed up at the tower three days later to update them on Maximoff’s training. That made up about 1% of the conversation since she didn’t beat around the bush. “You look terrible.”

“GQ Magazine doesn’t share that opinion.” Tony mumbled while sipping on his third cup of coffee that day.

“No, seriously, is there something wrong?” She was doing that thing. The one that Tony couldn’t trust. When he wasn’t sure if she was being a spy or his friend. For Natasha it was probably all the same thing which made it even worse.

For a moment Tony imagined telling her. Natasha wouldn’t be surprised. Of course not. She would say “What did you expect?”. She wouldn’t remain silent about it, things would escalate and bang – self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I’m still trying to take care of the Sokovia disaster. Not getting enough of my beauty sleep.”

She didn’t believe him but took mercy. Instead of asking again she merely touched his arm affectionately and left him alone.

This was good. Tony wasn’t hiding. Life was going on. Somewhat.

Chapter Text

Those breathing exercises really made him feel ridiculous, but Tony couldn’t deny that they helped him to calm down and get his thoughts straight. At least as nobody was watching him. By now Tony was sure that he had lost his mind, time to make it official once and for all. Any reasonable person would have already taken actions ages ago. The very second they had seen the promise of friendly fire on Tony’s wrist.

Friendly fire, huh. That was a nice way of putting it.

Seriously everybody else but Tony would have kicked them out without any explanation and would have built a fortress around himself. And then what? Out of his armour Tony was more or less helpless, but that wasn’t anything new. If a Hydra sniper decided to put a bullet into his head when Tony was getting out of his car, he would be fucked anyway.

No, Tony refused to believe that at this time one of his friends wanted him dead or that they were a danger to him. Or maybe Tony was just way too quick to call somebody his friend. Anyway, he had made his decision. Tony was going to write his own story. To his conditions.

Tony was going to be damned if he let some stupid magical mumbo-jumbo dictate his life. Well, technically that was exactly what he was already doing, but Tony could still tell himself that he could somewhat control the situation.

Fuck that, Tony was totally going to be on top of this. Nothing easier than that. Deep breaths.

“Friday, could you please ask Thor to get to the common room? I’d like to talk to him.”

“Certainly boss.”

Okay, Tony was going to be fine. Although he was convinced that he was doing the absolutely right thing Tony didn’t feel better. God, he missed the time when he had been bursting with self-confidence.

At least Thor had the decency to hurry up. Tony only waited for a couple of minutes, then Thor waltzed into the common room, a big smile on his face. Yeah, that wasn’t going to last long. “Stark, you wish to talk to me?”

“Yeah, you wanna sit down?”

Nodding Thor took a seat on the couch next to Tony, still smiling and Tony felt his stomach turn. No, he wasn’t going to go down the easy route. No pretending that this had never happened. Exhaling softly Tony decided to fully go for it immediately. “So when you choked me…”

And the smile was gone. Good start.

“… I wanted to let it go, but I realised it shouldn’t, because it scared the shit out of me and I need to understand what happened there.” The words were out, now the ball was in Thor’s court and Tony felt some actual relief.

“I… I’ve already told you that I am deeply ashamed of what happened and I know that this isn’t enough to earn your forgiveness, but…”

“No, Thor, that’s not…” Tony sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had so much trouble understanding himself, how was he supposed to explain any of that to Thor? “Just tell me why you thought that was the appropriate reaction?”

At this point Tony didn’t feel angry anymore, he was confused and scared. He needed some clarity. The expression on Thor’s face made it painfully clear that he hadn’t lied when he had said that he was ashamed.

“I wish I could tell you… I don’t know but…” Thor looked away, not able to meet Tony’s eyes. Tony could see him swallow, one of his hands twitching slightly. “I think I was overcome with fear and guilt. Loki warned us. He warned me. Yet I allowed you to keep the sceptre here and we lost control over it. Which was my fault. I should have known to trust Loki’s word on this more than you. I should have listened to him. I have made that same mistake before. I instantly knew that I was to blame… and I didn’t want to accept that, so I lashed out… another mistake I have made many times before. The same mistakes why my father has found me unfit to rule Asgard. At this moment it didn’t occur to me that you are… Midgardian. That our strength cannot be compared. That I had no right. I didn’t… expect you to immediately forgive me, but I’ve meant what I said. I will try to earn your forgiveness.”

“Thor… I am not asking this to make you feel bad, I’m just trying to make sense out of a couple of things and there’s something else I wanted to know… That… grabbing people by the throat thing is nothing particular Asgardian?” Of course that sounded horrible and Tony felt bad for saying that way, but he had run out of words.

Shame turned into confusion but Thor determinedly shook his head. “No, that was just my own… foolishness. I am deeply sorry. You’re not going to project my mistakes onto my brother?”

“No, that’s not what I’ve wanted to say. I just… Ultron has shown how quickly we are willing to tear each other’s skin off and I want to… find out why.” Tony muttered under his breath, resisting the urge to scratch his itching wrist.

“I see.” Thor nodded slowly and Tony could actually see how he drifted off, his thoughts carrying him far away.

This conversation hadn’t been bad. Right? Thor was so obviously sorry and completely ashamed that the mere of idea of him ending up harming Tony seemed ridiculously and honestly, that wasn’t what Tony was afraid of. Obviously. Then again, Tony hadn’t thought that Thor would strangle him in the first place, even before looking at the curse. At least it had made Tony understand how incredibly helpless he was. Once out of the armour.

He couldn’t wear it 24/7 and Tony refused to. That wasn’t going to be his life. Nonetheless that conviction didn’t make him feel less scared.

“I couldn’t help but notice your different behaviour ever since the Ultron incident. Loki and I have talked about it…”

Tony flinched and barely made it to meet Thor’s eyes. “Might be…”

“Are you scared? Is it my fault?”

“No, I… I am deeply worried. About all of us. What happened to us and what still might happen. Yeah, maybe I am also scared, because… let’s face it, I am would be completely fucked if this thing went south and it sucked to be reminded of that…” Tony rubbed one hand over his eyes, he wanted to rip the sweatband off and then do the same with his skin, so they could all just go on with their lives.

“Why do you feel that way?” Thor asked, honestly curious and Tony huffed. “Because you can pick me up and break my neck with one hand? Loki, Steve and Bruce would be able to do the same… That doesn’t make me feel good or safe…”

Tony could see it. The very second Thor decided against telling him that none of them would ever hurt him and Tony was grateful. Nobody was going to hurt him, because Tony was going to write this story. He was going to be the one who would bring all the pieces into the right position.

Yet Tony still had to find a way to stop him from being so afraid.

“Do you…” Thor hesitated, then continued to speak with a firm voice. “I would completely understand if you were to decline, but… maybe it would make you feel better to work on your abilities in physical combat. I would gladly help you with that.”

For Tony that suggestion came right out of the blue and the first answer that came to his mind was ‘no’. Then again, why not? Getting in better shape and learning a few moves might actually help Tony feeling a bit safer. “What would that entail? You kicking my ass in the gym?” Tony smiled to let Thor know that it was okay to do the same thing.

 ***

Yeah, that had been a great idea. Thor had sworn to go easy on him and Tony was sure that he had done exactly that, but Thor was still a very mighty god and Tony was a middle aged man who had spent most of his life behind a computer. The result was lots of aching bones and muscles in his body, but it was a good hurt. One that reminded him of being alive. Also working out with Thor made Tony feel more at ease around him. Which was strange but pleasant.

Unlike the conversation that he was going to have now. At least Steve was in a good mood and happy to be at the tower. Tony could have only invited him over for the most wonderful reason. Like hanging out together, not sitting down in Tony’s office for a serious discussion.

Tony thought it was better to get straight to business, because it was going to be a long talk anyway. “I want Loki to be an Avenger.”

The smile on Steve’s lips froze before fading away completely. Tony decided to make things definitely clear before Steve could say anything. “Fulltime. Not just helping out when crazy murder robots are trying to destroy the world.”

“That’s…” Steve clearly his throat, clearly collecting himself like after a punch to the stomach. Did it feel to him like Tony had just delivered a harsh hit? Why? “To be honest, Tony, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Just like expected. Leaning back in his chair Tony made an inviting gesture. “Go ahead. I’m listening. Why is it a bad idea?”

“You can’t just…” Steve took a breath, clearly searching for the right words to say. “How can somebody be an Avenger who was directly responsible for the invasion of New York?”

Tony felt his chests growing a little tight. Wasn’t that strange? Despite the current, pretty fucked up situation Tony still immediately felt the urge to defend Loki. Or maybe it had less to do with Loki and more with this being incredibly unfair. At least that was very easy to point out.

“Directly responsible?” Tony did nothing else, he merely repeated Steve’s own words. Okay and he raised an eyebrow.

“Alright, that wasn’t the best way to phrase that… somebody who was involved in the invasion. People saw him. Videos were made of him in Germany. There is no way you can make him part of the Avengers and still expect people to trust us.”

Argument number 1 and Tony had been prepared for that. “So Loki gets punished because he wasn’t operating in secret while being completely out of his mind.”

“Tony, this has nothing to do with being punished…” Steve determinedly shook his head. “We can’t work completely alone. We depend on the way people react to us. We wouldn’t be able to help anyone if they were scared when they see us approach.”

No, that wouldn’t help Steve either. Tony had had the entire night to ponder this since he had given up on sleep completely. “Everybody is crapping their pants when they see the Hulk approach and we still take Bruce along and Loki is way less of a risk than Bruce. We’ll tape Loki using his magic to put a broken building back together or stopping a truck from running over a couple of children. People will lover him overnight or… the even easier solution – Loki is a shapeshifter, he can look like anybody.”

In response Steve sighed and Tony thought that the other one was aware of the shakiness of his arguments. “Look, Tony… it’s not like I can’t see how Loki’s abilities could be very useful. There is no way that can be denied. But if I am honest I don’t feel good about this idea of him on the time. I don’t trust him and I don’t think I ever will since he don’t see him valuing human life. I don’t want him around people that are in never, because I am not sure if he cares enough to give his all.”

Tony couldn’t suppress a huff and there was no way to deny his rising anger. No, it wasn’t just the unfairness, Tony had a problem with Steve looking down on Loki like that. What did he know? How many times had he actually talked to Loki during this last year? Tony had no idea. Steve should know better than that. What could happen when you are sideling somebody, pretending like their opinion didn’t matter. Would you really be surprised if they turned against you then?

No, nobody was turning against anybody. Tony knew that he could hold them together, but he had to try. Until now nobody had tried.

“So Loki is in the doghouse although we have clear proof of him not being responsible for any of it… but why did you agree to train Maximoff then? She knew what she was doing. Do you trust her? Do you think that people wouldn’t be afraid of her approaching them? If they knew what she has done? If we had Bruce explain to them what he made her do?”

Steve had the decency to flinch and he shifted on his chair. “It’s not that easy. Believe me, I don’t feel completely at ease with the current situation. Loki… he is like Thor… an adult, so much older than us and I don’t think that there is something about him that can still be changed. She is… young and life hasn’t been easy on her. There was so much anger and rage… beneath that I am sure lies a good person. She needs help and I can help, so I have to do that. Don’t you agree with me?”

Yes and no. Tony had no idea. Circumstances could be fucked up, but there was Bruce who had been dealt a shit hand years ago and then that bitch entered the scene and forced him to carry even more than the entire weight of the world on his shoulders. No, there was no excuse for that. No shitty childhood was enough to make up for that.

“I think Bruce needs help to deal with the fact that he caused death and destruction in Johannesburg without being able to do something about it.”

“I’m not trying to play that down.”

“Yes, you are. She grew up in a country ripped apart by war and her parents died during it. That’s fucking horrible and it’s even more horrible that it’s not an uncommon fate. Lots of people go through that and lots of them don’t join an infamous Nazi cult. You think she needs help… sure, she needs help. Every other person who has gone through that trauma needs help too. Do they deserve it less, because they didn’t let Hydra experiment on them? Does Loki deserve it less for going through something that nobody of us saw? Let’s just be real about this, Steve, okay? Sooner or later shit is going to go down and I am going to bring him along. If he wants to. Because I think he deserves it. Some of us won’t like that, I get it. But some of us also don’t like the Maximoff situation. We’ll have to find a way to work this all out.”

Tony saw Steve’s face turning into stone. So now the big guns were coming out.

“He killed Coulson.”

So simple. A statement that was probably supposed to shake Tony to his core. Steve looked so convinced that Tony was almost tempted to shrug, but that would have been an awful thing to do. “Yes, he did. When he was completely out of his mind. Does Coulson’s death count more than everybody who lost their life in Johannesburg, because you personally knew him? More than Strucker? Yes, another criminal who had been arrested and was helpless in his cell when they murdered him. They knew what they were doing, Loki didn’t.”

Steve was running out of logical arguments and he had to know it. Even worse, by now it looked like he would have to defend their decision to keep the Maximoff girl around. Perhaps that would be the right thing to talk about, but Tony was tired and he couldn’t fight all the battles at once.

“You’re wearing the sweatband again. Did something happen?”

The sudden change of topic hit Tony completely unexpected and all warmth was slipping from his body. He couldn’t help the knee-jerk reaction to pull back his hand and put it in his lap, so Steve didn’t see it anymore. Too late anyway. Steve had seen it and he was already drawing his own conclusions. “Did you see it?”

“We’re not talking about that.”

“Tony, that’s important…”

“No!” Tony snapped, way too aggressive. “It’s just a word! I don’t know what it means. It seems fucking obvious, but that’s unacceptable. I’m not going to let it be that. I’m going to make it something else, something good and nobody but me is going to see it. And don’t think that what is written on my list makes me think any different about Maximoff or Loki.”

That was lie, but Tony was trying so hard to make it true. It was all that he was thinking about.

“I’m just… surprised by your suggestion. That’s all.” Steve tried to calm him down the exact wrong way. It pissed Tony off. No, he wasn’t going to start yelling or alienating Steve. Tony wanted them to stick together and to prove that they couldn’t be torn apart as easily as Ultron had though.

“That’s the problem, Steve… Why are you surprised by that? He is as strong as you and the things he can do with his magic are superior to pretty much all we can do. It was proven over a year ago that he can’t be blamed for the invasion. He has been living with us for over a year. He helped us fighting Ultron and the entire time he hasn’t given us a single reason to distrust him. It should be evident to make him an Avenger.”

That was taking it one step too far for Steve. “Evident? Really, Tony? Sure, we know that he is not responsible for the invasion, but he was nevertheless involved. The bad stuff, although he can’t be blamed for it, still happened. Clint still got mind controlled and forced to kill people. Do you think it’s fair to him to have the person on the team who did that?”

Tony closed his eyes for a second, because that was finally a point he could understand. Too late though. “Clint isn’t on the team any longer. He retired. You would be right though if we hadn’t known for over a year. Hell yes, it would have been an asshole move to say one day after the invasion ‘Hey, Loki is actually not responsible for anything. Let’s have him on the team. Deal with it, Clint.’ It’s one year later, Clint is gone and if he still was part of the team and he was against it, then we would have to talk about it. By the way, Bruce is still on the team and you didn’t wait a day to bring in the girl that made him kill people.”

The conversation was over now, Tony could see it. Steve realised that there was no way he could win this argument, given Tony’s determination and actual facts.

“Alright, I’ll talk to the others about it...” The low tone of his voice told Tony that Steve thought Loki’s addition to the team would cause trouble. Wasn’t that ironic?

“Thank you… when are you going back to compound?”

“I thought late afternoon. Why?”

“Thor wants to have a movie night. Stay around for a bit. It’s going to be fun.”

Steve responded with a smile and that was a good way to end this discussion. “Sure, I’d like that.”