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The Beautiful Lie

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It's been nearly three weeks and Loki still hasn't been able to give Fury an answer. Not that the man is pushing for one, a fact which bothers him simply because he can't figure out why. Sure, he helped to save the world and that buys him more than a little lee way but even so... So he tiptoes around the place, trying and failing to figure out what to do next. What he wants to do next.

He hasn't left once and he thinks that's at least part of what it allowing Fury to indulge him. If he tried to leave he half expects to find himself clapped in irons and dragged back to that cell, or to Asgard. Which is another mystery. The bifrost isn't entirely fixed yet, but it's working well enough to allow for free and easy travel between Midgard and his - former – home. Even if Fury and those he answers too are prepared to give Loki a chance, he's not sure why Odin would do the same.

Yet there has been no word from the Allfather, at least none directed at Loki. It hurts, more than he expected. More than he wants it too. Even after everything, this silence is a rejection he hadn't been prepared for. Not that he'd expected to be welcomed home with open arms, all forgiven. Not that he, himself, is ready to forgive yet. But this lack of anything, of angry words or demands, it speaks of a disinterest he hadn't anticipated.

Though maybe he should have done, given what happened the last time he was in Asgard. Left alone in a cell, gagged and bound. Even Thor hadn't been to visit him, he'd just been left alone, forgotten. Unimportant. Nothing.

'I am NOT nothing, I am Loki.'

He says the words out loud, letting them echo around the basement lab. They help, but not as much as he would like. For a brief moment he considers going back, asking Thor to take him. Surely Fury would allow him that? Forcing the issue is the sort of thing Loki likes to do, making sure he will not – cannot – be ignored.

The mortal man who enters then, whistling to himself changes his mind. There will be a time and place when heading to Asgard and confronting the Allfather is the right thing to do. Right now however, even that couldn't persuade him to leave Tony's side.

'Tony, you are late this morning.'

'Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. Team meeting, sort of a last minute thing.'

It is a sharp reminder that until he agrees to Fury's terms he is not really a member of said team. Despite everything, he doesn't belong here. Not yet, perhaps not ever.

'Oh. Anything interesting?'

'Not really. Fury wants me to develop some new super weapons. I refused. The usual.'

'Why would you refuse?'

'Stark Industries is not a weapons manufacturer, not any more.'

'Oh. But...'

'That was an exceptional circumstance. The entire world was in danger. It's not right now, that makes a difference.'

Loki could point out that the world is always in danger, but he doesn't. Tony is still a puzzle to be worked out and he has no inclination to rush the process. Instead he moves over to the man, seeking the comfort that his presence brings. As if sensing his need, Tony wraps an arm around his waist and lays a soft kiss against his cheek.

'How are you holding up?'

'Fine. I... I don't know what to do.'

'Well, I can always do with a hand in here, if you don't mind being relegated to the role of lab assistance. Or we could go and watch a movie. Do you have movies on Asgard?'

'Movies? No. I... Would Fury let me leave?'

'Loki, if you really wanted to go could he actually stop you?'

It is a valid point, and one Loki hadn't considered. Not really. For all their tech and ideas, SHIELD is no where near close to developing the cell that could actually hold him. He really could just walk out of here any time he wanted to, so why hadn't he? Strange. Perhaps he did want to be here.

'So, I am not a prisoner?'

'Not even slightly. Is... Is that all that's been keeping you here?'

It's not, and they both know it, but Loki is grateful for the question. For even the vaguest suggestion that Tony wants him here, would be sad – hurt even – if he just left. It helps, to be reminded that he is not without power in whatever strange dynamic they have going on between them.

'No. I-I think I want to stay.'

'Then you should. Tell Fury you accept his offer. You might even enjoy it.'

He lays his head against Tony's shoulder, hunching slightly to do so. He might enjoy it, that's true. He has never dared think of himself as a hero, but perhaps he could be. He doesn't want to think about the alternative. If he returned to his villainous pursuits, would Tony still hold him like this? Probably not, but there is an appeal to be found in that idea too. It is weakness to need someone the way he fears he needs Tony. A god should be able to stand on his own two feet, at all times.

Besides, if Tony had any idea of the monster he really is then there would be no more kisses. No more of this hugging, hand holding or easy conversation. Would there even be hatred, or simply the silence of Odin?

Tony strokes his hair, soft and patient.

'What are you thinking?'

'Nothing.'

'Sure. Well, how about that movie? If you don't feel like going out, there's a perfectly good TV and a sofa upstairs. Of course, Clint and Natasha seem to have claimed if but I think we can probably take them if it comes to a fight.'

Loki allowed himself to be led from the room, quite literally by the hand. He had no idea what kind of films he might like so left the choice up to Tony. Then they were settling back on the couch together. Somehow, Loki found himself stretched out, long legs hooked over the arm of the sofa, head resting in Tony's lap. It was...nice.

Aside from a couple of awkward conversations with his brother, Loki has kept his interactions with the avengers to a bare minimum, aside from Tony. Intellectually he can understand that things have changed. Whilst not friends, they are definitely no longer enemies. Even he and Clint have come to some kind of understanding. A truce, perhaps.

With Tony it's different. The kiss they shared has become one of many, so that he has grown familiar with the way the man's tongue feels against his. He has explored every sensitive inch of Tony's mouth, has revelled in his taste. It is the only time he really feels certain of anything, really feels like himself.

But he doesn't dare take it any further than that. Kissing is not something the Chitauri demanded of him, too soft and personal and intimate for what they had wanted. Kisses you gave to a friend, or a loved one. Not to a creature you sought only to use and break, to destroy. Kissing Tony feels safe, for the most part.

It feels safe now, as he shifts himself until he has managed to clamber into Tony's lap. The movie runs in the background, forgotten. This position is a new one and he revels in the feel of Tony's arms around him, holding him close. It is wonderful, until he shifts in Tony's lap and feels the very hard evidence of Tony's interest.

In a second all feelings of safety have fled. They are in new and dangerous territory now. He freezes, his lips stilling against Tony's, his back tensing against the hands that stroke them.

'Loki?'

'I-I can't do this. Please.'

He pulls away, trying not to see the confused, injured look of the one man he feels safe to consider a friend. Tony lets him go, wordless, a single sigh of relief leaving his mouth when Loki only goes as far as the other end of the sofa.

'Loki? You OK?'

Loki shakes his head, fighting back the tears. No, he is not OK. His own desire is a thing he has forced down, not ready to be confronted by. Faced now with Tony's he doesn't know what he should be doing.

'Hey. It's OK. If you don't want to do something, anything, you don't have to.'

Loki nods, mute with the effort not to give in and cry. It is a hollow victory when he manages to get himself back under control.

'Let's just watch the film.'

So they do, and when Clint and Natasha make an appearance Loki fights the urge to flee. If he is to fight alongside them – and he thinks, perhaps, that he wants to – then first he must be able to spend time with them.

After that, it almost becomes routine. Thursday night is movie night. It takes two more days before Loki finally gives Fury his answer. Tempting as it would be to cut his losses and run, he is determined not to do so. If his time with the Chitauri taught him anything it is that he is stronger than anyone gives him credit for, including himself.

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Tony must have the patience of a saint, which is a revelation even to himself. He lets Loki make all the moves, which is a new feeling for him. As exciting as it is frustrating. This isn't any situation Tony has ever been prepared for. It's not chasing some hot piece of ass he has to impress, or a carefully planned seduction. It's not allowing himself to be pulled into bed by some lovely young thing in love with his reputation, his fame or his money.

It's a waiting game, whereby he makes himself available and occasionally, just often enough to reassure him that he's reading the situation correctly, Loki slides himself into his arms and lets his lips seek out Tony's. He tries not to get too hot and bothered, knowing that if he expresses too much interest the still healing god will leave his arms empty faster than he can blink. He tries, but it's almost impossible not to get a little excited.

He's more than reassured when Loki formally accepts a -provisional- place on the team. It will do the guy good to have something to do, something worthwhile. At first there are no obvious changes, beyond Loki's presence at the sporadic meetings. Loki still skulks around the place, keeping to the shadows and dark places, almost like he's afraid of being seen.

He's still too thin, still hates to eat where he can be seen – though he's trying. The first time he joins them for dinner voluntarily, it's all Tony can do to keep a grin from his face. Thor fails utterly, his smile wide and bright enough to challenge the sun. It's two days after that meal before Loki can bring himself to seek Tony out with hesitant, soft touches.

Their kisses that night are gentle, soothing things. Tony makes sure to keep his hands above the waist, but even so when he gently slides a hand into Loki's hair, the other man pulls away with a startled, unhappy sound.

'Too much? I'm sorry.'

For the first time, Loki doesn't withdraw entirely, allowing himself to be coaxed back into Tony's arms for one last kiss before they both retreat to the more comfortable place of friends working together. When they finish up for the night – not that Tony is tired, but he can see Loki waning – Loki follows him to bed. Tony lies too still next to him not sure what, precisely this change in behaviour means.

They don't touch that night but when Tony wakes in the morning it's to find that Loki has snuggled up against his side, one long arm stretched out across his chest. Every morning after that, regardless of whether the god had been with him when he fell too sleep he wakes to find him in his arms. It's not a bad feeling. Quite the opposite.

 

Finally, barely a month after Loki agreed to join them, the Avengers find themselves called into battle once more. This time it's to deal with some crazy Latvian doctor who's let loose a handful of robotic monsters out in the New Mexico desert. Tony's glad it's nothing more serious, not sure yet how Loki will handle fighting alongside them once more, not after last time.

He needn't have worried. Loki is beautiful when he fights. He weaves and out of the battle like it's a dance. His movements are fluid, so light on his feet that he almost rivals Natasha's deadly grace. When he strikes, it is always sudden and deadly, like a snake.

Not that there aren't issues. Loki is unpredictable, never where you expect him to be. At one point, Tony finds himself stood infront of a seemingly stricken god, determined to defend him to the death if need be, only to catch a glimpse of him stepping out from behind a pillar to fire a blast of green flame straight in the eyes of one of the mechanical beasts. Another time he catches Thor running full pelt to apprehend the creature who's about to stab his brother in the back, only for the image of Loki to shimmer into nothing sending beast and thunder god both falling from an unstable ledge.

Right, Loki clearly isn't used to team work. It's something they will have to work on. Still, the battle is theirs and when they head out to celebrate the victory Loki joins them.

That night, when the god finds his way into Tony's bed his eyes are bright with a rather distracting lust and alcohol mix. It's a dangerous combination, particularly when the way Loki is looking at him sends a rush of blood straight to his dick. His patience is about to be well and truly tried. Loki crawls across the bed, then across him. Distantly, he is aware that the god weighs a reasonable amount and that's a good thing.

When Loki leans in to kiss him there is just a touch of roughness, the barest hint of teeth.

'Loki? I'm not sure this is the best idea.'

'Are you rejecting me?'

There is something dangerous in Loki's gaze. More than dangerous. Traumatised gods and alcohol don't mix, good to know for future reference.

'I'm not rejecting you, I'm just saying that now might not be the best time.'

'Don't you want me Tony?'

Tony forces himself to meet the heated gaze, trying not to wince at the barest suggestion of pain Loki can't quite hide.

'Oh, I do. So much. Just... not drunk. OK?'

Apparently, it's not OK. Loki pulls back from him as if he's just been struck. His face is pale and angry and touched with more than a little crazy. Fuck. He finds himself wishing for a split second that the anger was aimed at him, but it's too apparent it's not. Loki stares into space, collapsing in on himself. He racks the fingers of one hand down his other wrist with a cry of rage.

'Fuck. Loki, don't do that. Please.'

It's the please that seems to get through to him. He stares at the scratches on his wrist as if shocked by their presence. Then shakes his head, letting a self mocking smile spill onto his lips.

'I'm sorry. I should have known better.'

Tony wishes he knew the right words to fix this. To let Loki know that he's not done anything wrong, it's simply that he's not sure this is the right time for them to take things further. Still, he lets Tony lay him down and cuddle him. Whatever dark place Loki is clearly still in, that gives Tony hope.

The next morning when he wakes there is no sign of Loki, beyond the dent in the pillow that lies beside his.

Loki stares at himself in the mirror, lets his hands trace their way down his body. He's filling out, more than just skin and bone, though the softness of his flesh bothers him. Is that why Tony didn't want him? Or is it because of the things he knows Loki has done. Why would Tony want to lay with him, when he could have any number of nubile young things. Young things who aren't damaged the way he is.

He remembers Tony's words, that it was only Loki's drunken state which held him back. He wants to believe them, badly. But doesn't Tony have a reputation for indulging in drunken antics? Besides, how can he explain that it was only the alcohol which had made him brave enough to even try? That without it, his own desire scares him.

He finds himself staring at his half naked reflection until Natasha, of all people, finds him.

'Oh, sorry. Didn't realise anyone was in here. I was just going to grab a shower.'

Loki startles. It is rare that anyone, even her, can sneak up on him. The fact that she wasn't sneaking doesn't make him feel any better at all. He tries to fix a smile onto his face, but for all his experience at lying this one refuses to do it's job. He is unhappy, and the look she gives him is so full of understanding that it makes him want to hurt her.

Instead, he wraps his arms around his belly trying to hide the hateful bulge of it.

'You know, I was going to hit the gym with Clint and Steve later. You should join us. Apparently, training together means we fight better together.'

He isn't expecting the gentle hand that rests on his shoulder. 'And you'll feel better for it, trust me. Stronger.'

He knows that she is right, so whilst his first instinct is to throw her off, or through a wall he suppressed it. In her own way she is trying to help. It is more than he expected, perhaps even more than he deserves.

When he first walks into the SHIELD gym and see them chatting together as they stretch he almost turns around and leaves. Tony is with them, which he hadn't expected at all. Tony, who he hasn't seen since he slipped out of the man's bed like a shamed whore hours earlier. There are no recriminations in Tony's eyes however, only concern and the barest hint of a smile.

So he stays and he trains. He waits for the usual slurs to be cast at his fighting style. To be told that he is lacking strength, or that his chosen tactics reek of cowardice. They don't come. Natasha asks to spar with him, so that he can teach her a move she saw him use in their fight the day before. Steve suggests a few different exercises he can try to help him build up the muscle he lost during his incarceration.

He might not have the physical prowess of Thor, or the brute strength of the Hulk, but he is still a god of Asgard. They seem quietly impressed with the power behind his blows, more openly appreciative of his skill with thrown weapons. Loki has never had much time for fighting, not really. There are other pursuits, those of the intellect, which he has always preferred. Besides which, Thor has always been the fighter and that is one arena in which he has never even hoped to be able to compete. For the first time however, he finds himself praised for what he can make his body do. It is hard not to preen and after a while, he stops trying not to.

Over the next week he loses the embarrassing, hateful layer of fat that so upset him, replacing it with the tight, toned lines of muscle he was more used to. Clint complains once that it isn't fair, the way his god like constitution allows him to build muscle so quickly. For a moment, he thinks to gloat about it, to point out that it's because he is so much more than Clint, than any mortal. He swallows the impulse and is glad he does. Clint rewards him with a grin and he realises that the man is joking with him. Teasing.

He catches Tony staring at him, more than once. Can feel the man's gaze travelling over his newly toned physique. He can all but smell the man's desire. He wants to go to him, to give in the shared need they are both experiencing. He wants to, but he doesn't.

Every place he wants Tony to touch him has been touched by other hands, hands which were far from gentle. Everywhere except his lips, and so they fall back into the old pattern of kissing and pulling away and kissing again.

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To the casual observer everything seems to be going well. More than well, in fact. Three more missions follow in quick succession and slowly, Loki finds himself falling into a more natural rhythm with the others. It's not that he stops using his preferred tactics of guile and deception but rather that the others let him. They trust him, he realises. Not only to be where he is needed but also to take care of himself.

He can't help but feel a bit of pride at that. Thor is the only one who takes foolish risks in an attempt to save him – whether it is really him or simply one of his copies – but Thor has always been unnecessarily over protective. At least in battle. For now, Loki chooses not to think about the times he needed Thor to be there for him in other ways.

He eats with his team mates, trains with them, even attends the meetings. Sometimes he finds the courage to speak up and share his ideas. Most of the time, people actually listen. Once, Steve asks him for his take on a situation. It feels good, to be accepted and valued. It just doesn't feel right or safe, not a feeling he can trust.

Not everyone on the team is a casual observer however. Natasha would never have lived so long if she hadn't been uncannily talented when it came to reading people. Tony, of course, gets to see more of him than anyone else. It is Banner who surprises him, pulling him to one side after their latest victory.

'Loki? I was hoping you'd let me give you a quick check over.'

'Why? I am not injured.'

'No, not from this fight. But less than two months back you drained yourself almost to the point of death.'

Loki finds himself pulling away. He knows it's true but cannot help hating that they all know. Even if his efforts were what saved the team, the world. Even if they are what has given him this chance. He hates that they have all seen him so weak.

'I'm fine. If you truly thought I wasn't, you wouldn't let me fight.'

There is no arguing with that, but Banner tries anyway.

'Physically, I can't disagree. I've never seen anyone recuperate quite so fast, given the state you were in when we got back. There's a difference though, between being well enough to work and being well enough.'

'I am fine.'

'Right. Well, I hope so Loki, but... If you ever want to talk or whatever, my door is always open.'

His concern irritates Loki, leaving him fighting the urge to lash out. He hates that too, that he can't simply accept that his team mates have a vested interest in his health and well being. He tries to write if off as simply that – they need him fighting fit to be of any use to them. Yet he is fighting fit and they all know it.

He wants to ask why Banner cares, why any of them do. Even Tony. Maybe especially Tony. He can't bring himself to ask however, turning away with a quick, false smile. Even his own father – not father, his true father is dead and at his hands – has given up all pretence of caring. Whatever their reasons, he doesn't want to know. Not yet. No doubt, when they are ready to tell him the price they will. In the meantime, he holds the words that give him purpose close to his chest. Hero. Team mate. Ally. Lover?

They may be lies, all of them. He is not really any of those things, he has still not found his place. Maybe he never will, but he can play along for now. After all, he played the part of Aesir prince for centuries before finding out the painful, bitter truth.

He joins Tony, not in the basement but in the make shift bar Tony had installed at SHIELD HQ. Apparently, the man liked to have a ready supply of decent alcohol close to hand at all times. Not that Loki is complaining, he is acquiring quite a taste for this Midgardian whisky. Natasha is giggling with Pepper in a corner, whilst Thor has Clint pinned down in one corner, earnestly commending him for a particularly timely take down in the battle.

Loki tries to relax, to let himself feel part of this. He wants, so badly, to just belong. When Tony rests a hand against his he finds himself pulling away. He is snappy, prickly and not fit company at all. His skin crawls and he's not sure why. Everything seems too bright, too loud. Everyone seems too close, crowding him even from the other side of the room.

Jumping up, he manages to bite out a farewell to Tony, the injured look in the other's eyes only adding to his sudden anger. He all but flees from the room only to stop in the hallway outside. Where, precisely, can he go? He just wants to hit something, to tear it to shreds. He wants to scream out this rage that seems to have appeared from nowhere. He wants to find a safe place to curl up and hide, to cry it out. He wants...

It's Natasha who slips out of the room to find him, a fact he only realises when he sees her standing in front of him. She grabs his hand, pulling it away from his opposite arm. He stares at the stinging scratches he has once more inflicted upon himself without really noticing and swears softly.

'Gym. Now.'

Her words are more a command than a request. This stupid, tiny mortal woman is ordering him around and it's not right. He has his hand pulled free and raised to slap her before he knows what he's doing, before he even has time to register that this is an action he would sorely regret. Thankfully someone else is there before he has time to let his blow fall. He can feel the tip of something sharp between his shoulder blades.

'Touch her and you might not live to regret it buddy.'

It's Clint, of course. Who else? He takes a deep breath and lets his hand drop. It would be so easy now to give in to his nature. To turn on them both. He's sure that he could win such a fight. Good as they are, they are both only human. It would be easy, but nothing about the decisions he's made lately has lead him to believe that he wants the easy path.

'I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...'

Whatever it is sticking into his back is withdrawn, with a sigh of relief.

'We OK here now? Nat?'

'Yes.'

 

'Good. Really wasn't sure I could take on a god with a cork screw and win.'

Natasha smirks, but her gaze never leaves Loki.

'I see three options here Loki. You can talk about it. Not usually what works for me but it can help. You can head down to the gym with me and work some of if out. Or you can keep bottling everything up until you snap.'

Loki cocks his head to one side. He's not entirely sure what she means, the rage which had filled him seconds before seems to have fled now, leaving nothing but numbness in it's wake. For all that he is the liesmith, sometimes even he has uses for honesty.

'I don't understand.'

'Don't understand what? Your choices? Because I think Natasha was pretty clear.'

'I don't understand what is wrong. With me.'

The three stand in silence for a few seconds, then Natasha is stepping into his space too fast for him to object. She pulls him into a hug, touching him in ways he is not yet used to. A minute ago he might have killed her for this, now the unexpected affection simply fills his eyes with tears.

'Oh Loki. This isn't... There's nothing wrong with you, not really. This is normal, OK? You just need to let us help you deal with it.'

He listens to her words, he's even grateful for them. He wants, desperately, for them to be true. She is wrong however. There is something wrong with him. Everything that he is, even from the skin he wears, is a lie. He is a monster, trying to be a hero. What is normal about that? Then again, such a situation is not unheard of here, the avengers have a monster of their own.

Later that night, when he can't sleep despite the warmth of Tony's body next to his Loki slips out bed. He finds himself stood outside of Banner's lab and the door is, indeed open. The doctor is still awake, engrossed in some experiment or other, but when he turns to see Loki hovering in the doorway his face softens into a smile.

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His conversations with Banner happen at odd, unplanned times. Sometimes they take place in Banner's lab, other times in the lounge or bar. On one memorable occasion it is post battle, when Banner is exhausted and out of sorts having not long changed back.

Loki brings him the change of clothes that are always kept close at hand when there's a chance the Hulk will be needed. He sits down and watches impassively as Banner gets dressed, then startles him with a question.

'What is it like?'

'Letting the other guy lose?'

'No. Not that... Everyone knowing.'

'Knowing what?'

'That you are a monster, inside.'

Banner's eyes widen, the hurt visible. Loki, normally so observant doesn't notice straight away. His thoughts are on himself.

'You think I'm a monster?'

He looks up and winces, realising what he has said. How can he explain that he was talking more about himself than the other man?

'No! I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean...'

'It's OK. You aren't the first to think so. I thought so myself, for a long long time. Still think it some days.'

'Then how do you go on?'

'Well, it took me a while. The truth is, it doesn't matter what other people think of me, just what I do. The Hulk... It's easy to think of him as a monster, one that I need to control. But he's not, not really.'

Banner pauses, his face thoughtful.

'He's kind of me and not, at the same time. He's my anger, my rage. I thought for a long time that so much anger was a bad thing, an ugly thing. Don't get me wrong, it can be. I've seen what anger can do, when you let it lash out at those who don't deserve it.'

There is a haunted look in his eyes and Loki wishes he was brave enough to ask about it. A friend would ask but Loki isn't sure that's what he is, so he keeps his silence.

'Then I realised that anger doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's just an emotion, like love or sorrow or joy. If you can direct it right, use it the right way it can even be a good thing.'

'Like today?'
'Yeah. Like today.'

Loki nods, once, in understanding. Yes, all that rage was a powerful force. He has been on the receiving end of it after all. He remembers what it was like to have it all directed at him. It had been a good thing that day too, of course. He sighs as he stands to leave.

The day the Hulk had taken him down he was playing the part of villain to the hilt. He had never stopped to doubt that he deserved it when he was pounded into the ground, when he had lost that particular battle. But what had come after... Did he deserve that too?

Monsters should be kept caged, if they were caged at all. Released only when they were of use. He is aware on one level that this isn't the message Banner was trying to impart but it is the one he takes from their little talks. If he wants to keep his freedom, if he wants to play the part of hero now then he must make sure he is of use.

Even so, he is not like Banner and he knows it. Banner was born human, his condition the result of an experiment gone wrong. Whatever lurks beneath his skin, it is only a part of who he is. Not the whole picture. For Loki it is different. What lurks beneath HIS skin is the truth, is who - what – he really is.

He isn't given time to mope about and think his dark thoughts for long however. Thor finds him pulverising one of Cap's punching bags and drags him up to the bar to join in their celebratory drink. Giving in, letting himself be toasted along with the others, as though he truly were one of them is easy. He has been resisting the easy path for a while now, but tonight he lets himself walk it, just for a few hours.

He even manages to crack a joke or two, though one of them only Banner and Tony get. A little super genius humour, and that makes him truly smile and mean it. It's like a little club, within the hall of heroes. One that he gets to be part of.

Recalling what happened last time, he watches his drink this time. He longs for the way it makes him braver, when it comes to his feelings for Tony. At the same time, his already delicate ego can't stand the thought of another rejection. He's not yet ready to consider the mixed feelings his desire inspires.

On the one hand, Tony has never treated him with anything other than kindness, at least not since they started this odd little thing between them. Besides which the man is more than attractive with his quick mind and quicker smiles. Every little quirk of his lips sends a feeling of such intense want through Loki that he has to hold himself back from stealing in close to kiss and lick at the man's mouth. On the other hand, whenever he feels the evidence of Tony's desire for him he is filled only with revulsion.

Partly at himself, for craving the touch of another. How can he, when any pleasant memories of such things has been scoured from his flesh by Thanos and the Chitauri? Yet still, he does. He wants the man to kiss him, to touch him. To stroke his own hardened flesh.

More of his disgust than he would like is aimed at Tony himself. The man has seen him crawl beneath the legs of their enemy. He has a better idea than any other what Loki did in captivity, what he was required to do. How is it possible that the man can bring himself to want such a used, beaten thing? Only the most twisted of men could want him now and he can't stand to think of Tony that way. His friend.

He wonders if Tony would still be able to look upon him at all, if he knew the entire truth. If he had seen it all for himself. If he had seen Loki suckling on Chitauri flesh, or offering up his own bleeding ass to be taken. Or lapping his own piss up from the floor, like an animal. But then, isn't that what he is? Jotun. Frost Giant. Monster. Nothing.

Still, when Tony rests a hand on his arm he leans into the touch. He swallows down the sickness that threatens to spill out of him. If he could bring himself to pleasure the Chitauri for such a simple thing as food, surely he can allow himself to do the same for such a more complex need as comfort?
He tells himself that he can, that he should. Yet when he lies in Tony's arms that night, teasing his tongue with his own he knows he can not. When he feels Tony's cock swell against his leg he pulls away before he can tell himself to stop.

'I'm sorry.'

'It's OK Loki. Really, it's fine.'

But it's not and deep down they both know it.

He lets Tony coax him back into his arms, lets those strong hands shift him into place with the same confident, gentle touch that he's seen the man use on his previous machines. He lays his head against Tony's chest and wonders when he started crying. The tears fall silently down his cheek, soaking into the softness of Tony's chest hair. If Tony realises that Loki weeps he is wise enough to keep his silence. Though he does risk a hand in Loki's hair, stroking it softly. This time, Loki allows the petting to carry on.

It's not much, but it is progress. It is something, not nothing.

Chapter Text

Time passes and Loki does everything that is required of him. He finds himself discussing strategy with Fury and is surprised to find he enjoys it. It makes him think, wistfully, of the old days. Those precious hours he got to spend talking with Odin – and he knows that the eye patch only spurs on his reminiscence. He longs for home, more so than ever when Sif pops up every now and then to visit her mortal lover.

She usually has the warriors three in tow, which leads to much merriment and drinking, and more than a few smashed glasses. Part of him wants to join them but he doesn't. They are Thor's friends, not his. They never were, whatever his brother – no, not brother, never that – thinks. Besides, every time he sees or hears them it brings back memories that torture him now.

It had been easier to deal with their sometimes callous teasing when he thought he had a chance of one day earning their friendship. Now... Now every shared moment between them is tainted by his knowledge of what he really is. He wonders if they know. Thor does, but they never talk about it. Truthfully, they don't talk about much since Loki spends much of his time avoiding the other god.

Avoiding Sif turns out to be harder than avoiding Thor, if only because Pepper seems to have adopted him somewhat. Like he's a feral kitten that just needs a little bit of love and affection to turn him into the tame, affectionate pet she wants him to be. Sif regales them over dinner with the tale of how Loki cut off her hair once, when they were much younger. She seems to have forgiven him now, even growing fond of her long dark locks. She manages to inject the story with more humour than he can remember there ever actually being, partly because she doesn't tell the part where he is punished for his actions.

Tony grins, beside him.

'Well, I can see why they call you the god of mischief. I think I've only seen the chaotic side up until now.'

'Yes, that sounds positively playful Loki. I didn't know you had a carefree side.'

Thor of course is quick to prove Pepper wrong, launching straight into some other story featuring one of Loki's many pranks. He listens in astonishment, hearing the laughter that accompanies the telling. How can he explain that even then, it wasn't carefree? It wasn't a joke? It was the same bitter jealousy, the same desperate need to be noticed which has motivated every action he can remember taking. The same desire which once lead him to attack this world with an army.

It is not, for him, a laughing matter. All the attention is on Thor – as always – so he lays down his fork and slips away from the table.

He isn't sure where he means to go, but he finds himself out on the roof. It's cold, winter is coming. He can smell it on the breeze. He knows he's not really dressed for the weather, but that doesn't matter. Not for him. He longs for the cold to bother him, hating with ever fibre of his being that it doesn't.

He isn't sure how long he sits there, staring out into the darkness. He could probably have spent the night there, never expecting to be missed but that is not to be. The door clicks open somewhere behind him and soft footsteps announce Tony's presence long before the man is sitting beside him.

'So. Sitting around chatting over old times with your friends isn't your idea of fun huh?'

'They aren't my friends. They were never MY friends.'

'Thor seems to think differently.'

'Thor is an idiot.'

'They seem to agree with him.'

That takes Loki by surprise and he shifts a little, uncomfortable. After a moment's thought he speaks again.

'I was never their friend.'

He can feel Tony turn his head to look at him and resists the urge to return his gaze. He waits to be asked why. Sif and the warriors are eminently likeable people, after all. The question never comes however. Tony always seems to know when he can talk about something and when it's best left alone. When Tony does speak, it's nothing he expected to hear.

'You must have been very lonely.'

'I... Yes. I was. I have never really had friends, Tony.'

He leans against the man then, resting his head against Tony's shoulder. Allows it when the man drops his a kiss into his hair.

'Well, you have a friend now.'

For a moment, just one beautiful scattering of seconds everything is perfect. Then Tony ruins everything with a few simple words. Words that shouldn't have had the power to hurt, only they do for reasons Tony can never understand.

'You know, it's kind of freezing up here. We should go inside.'

There is no way he can explain that the sudden outburst of anger which leads to him snarling and pushing Tony away from him is because he hadn't noticed.

'Shit. What? If you want to stay out here you can. It was just a suggestion.'

He wants to apologise, to kiss away the wounded look on Tony's face. He wants to, but his rage rises up and swallows his words so that all he can do is snarl again. Like an animal. Like a beast, or a monster.

Tony backs away, slowly, carefully. Like he's worried that any sudden movement will spur Loki into an attack. Loki wants to reassure him that isn't possible, that he wouldn't hurt Tony. He struggles to reassure himself. He forces himself to turn away, turn his back so that he doesn't have to watch Tony flee. Tony however has never been one to run away, so he simply waits whilst Loki manages to wrestle his anger back under control.

'You going to tell me what that was about?'

'No.'

'No?'

'No. I-I can't.'

'Fine. But if you don't tell me what I did to upset you I can't promise I won't do it again. And Loki?'

'What?'

'I know you're new to this whole friendship thing, but lashing out like that isn't how it's done.'

Loki drops his head.

'I'm sorry.'

'I know. If I thought you weren't, I wouldn't still be here.'

'Why are you?'

'You remember that whole “we're friends” thing? Another thing friends don't do is walk away when someone they care about is hurting.'

'And you think I hurt?'

'No. I know you do.'

Loki hates that it's that obvious. He really does. His whole life has been based around hiding his weaknesses, keeping himself safe behind a wall built of tricks and lies. Why is it that around this man in particular, those carefully placed bricks seem to turn to smoke and blow away?

Loki takes a trembling step towards his friend, not entirely sure what he's doing. Tony meets him halfway, arms open so that he can step into them. He lets himself be wrapped up in a hug that has nothing to do with the desire which normally draws them together and everything to do with the comfort he doesn't dare ask for.

When they head back downstairs everyone else is crowded into the bar. Stories are still being told but Loki no longer features in them, for which he is more than grateful. Sif has taken the floor once more and regales them with one of Thor's early attempts to woo her, when they were little more than children. When the story ends with the youthful thunder god falling firmly on his arse Loki can't help but note that both Jane and Pepper smile with unnecessary viciousness.

It's so tempting to tell a story of his own then, of the long winded teenage romance between Sif and Thor. It would be so easy to poison the cheerful, celebratory mood with a careful manipulation of insecurity and jealousy. He wonders if Tony would be proud of him when he refrains. He never stops to think about whether he should be proud of himself.

Chapter Text

As the weeks pass Loki finds his anger growing. The more he finds himself accepted the greater his need to question why. He tries to keep his rage leashed everywhere but the field of battle. Tries to follow the example set by Banner, that anger is fine when it is directed appropriately. He finds the doctor watching him sometimes, his expression one of concern. The looks only irritate him.

When the others start to tip toe around him it is almost a relief. This he is used to. Tolerated but not trusted. Someone – something – with skills to be used, but also to be kept a wary eye on. Only Thor acts as if nothing has changed, as if this behaviour is normal. Which for Loki, it is.

Tony refuses to walk on egg shells around him. When he can see Loki simmering with rage he sends him to the training rooms to spar, or the gym to work out until he has exhausted his unspent anger. When he is feeling particularly brave he sits down with Loki, trying to draw him out with questions that are just a bit too insightful.

Eventually, the situation must come to a head and it does.

An entire platoon of other jotun warriors has found it's way to Midgard and weaves a path of death and destruction through Las Vegas. By the time the Avengers get there the area is being evacuated but there are already bodies littering the streets. The battle is hard and bloody and before it is over they have all doubted their chances of success. All except Loki.

He will not be defeated after everything he has gone through. Especially not by the monsters he is expected to call kin. He sends copies of himself everywhere, taunting them with the knowledge that it was he who killed their king. Distracted and enraged they make foolish mistakes. Make easier targets of themselves for the other to strike down.

Not that he leaves that task to his team mates alone. He strikes out with spear and dagger, with magic and once with bare fists. Which is when it all goes wrong. His fist connects with a jotun face, the contact fleeting but long enough for his hand to grow chill and blue. As if being surrounded by the frost giants wasn't enough of a reminder.

He finds himself reaching out for the one who dares stand against him, who has allowed it's vile skin to taint his. He barely registers as the freezing blue tones slide up his arms, he is too busy tearing the giant apart. For all that the creature is bigger and stronger than him, it can not withstand his frenzied, crazed attack.

It is the first to fall, but then he is on to the second, the third. He keeps going until they are all dead and it is his own reflection he is snarling at. He smashes the mirrored window in front of him, not even wincing as glass shards embed themselves in his fist. They must all die. All of them. He isn't even thinking any more when he snatches up one of his own fallen knives and turns it on himself.

It is the Hulk, the great green beast who slams him to the ground in an oversized bear hug. Who wrests the knife from his hand. Not that the beast can hold him long, for his touch alone is deadly. It sends the Hulk running from him, howling in pain. He wants to laugh so he does, but at some point it turns into a scream of pure, unbridled pain. Of rage and hate and despair.

They can all see him now, everything that he is. All that he is not. It is almost a relief. He tears as the flesh of his arms until all he can see is the redness of his blood., failing to notice the pale, pink skin it covers. He tears at himself until he doesn't have the strength to carry on. Then he allows himself to slump to the floor, collapsing in on himself and falling into blissful darkness.

Thor reaches his brother's side just in time to catch him in his arms before he finishes his graceless collapse. Even with just his nails – torn and ragged now – Loki has done himself far too much damage. The single wound he inflicted with his knife pours so much blood it takes Thor too long to find it and press down in a vain attempt to hold it closed.

 

Tony is not far behind him and in a matter of seconds the two men find themselves sharing a look filled with wordless horror as they try lay down the stricken god. Somewhere in the background someone is swearing. Another voice is on the comms, screaming for medical assistance. It might be Steve, or Clint. Neither can spare the time to check or care.

All that matters is the fallen, bleeding form they hold between them. Loki is cold to the touch and for a moment Tony isn't sure if that matters. After what he has just seen he isn't certain that cold isn't how Loki should feel all the time. Then he recalls the warmth he leaves behind when they share a bed, the heat of his slender form in Tony's arms. Whatever Loki is or may be, in this form he's warm blooded and he shouldn't be that cold. That pale. He shouldn't be shivering in a way that just can't be healthy.

'What do we do? Thor, what do we do?'

Thor closes his eyes, trying to block out the sight of his brother and think. The human medics are on their way but he isn't sure they will arrive in time, or know what to do when they get here. There is only one place he can think of which can guarantee Loki's health – at least in a purely physical sense.

'Heimdall! Heimdall open the bifrost! We need you. Please.'

He doesn't stop to find out if his plea has been hear before dragging himself to his feet, lifting Loki into his arms. There is only silence and for one awful moment he thinks his plea will go unheard. He can feel Tony standing beside him, reaching out a hand to grab one of Loki's.

'What's happening?'

Then the rainbow bridge is simple there, in all it's wonder and they are being pulled forwards, through time and space itself.

The Avengers have never been to Asgard, never travelled over the bifrost. Now, they find themselves stumbling, staring around them with wide eyes. In his haste, Thor never thought to give them a warning. It never even occurred to him that they would all be brought here.

Tony is the one to remind him that it doesn't matter, not right now. What matters is the too still form that lies in his arms, taking on an entirely different blue tint. Then Thor is running for the healing rooms, his confused allies struggling to keep up with him.

Loki is growing colder in his arms, his breaths few and far between now. He isn't going to make it in time. Hooves hitting the ground grab his attention and he finds himself looking up.

'Father!'

Odin doesn't take the time to acknowledge him with words, only a quick nod of his head. Then he is pulling Loki from his arms, lifting him up to rest before him on the might eight legged steed. Sleipner runs at a speed no one could ever match on two legs alone, and before Tony even has time to ask what is happening, Odin has vanished into the distance.

Thor stops, panting and allows the others to catch them up. When they do, it is Steve is holding up a half dressed Banner, one who holds one frost bitten arm to his chest.

'What the hell is going on?'

'My friends, there is much I should tell you. But for now, we should take Bruce to the healing chambers and check on my brother.'

It is a longer walk than any of them want and the conversation which accompanies does not flow with it's usual ease. They all have questions and concerns. Too many to allow anyone to really take in and appreciate the beautiful sights all around them. The wonder of being in another realm, walking upon another world will have to wait for another time.

Chapter Text

Tony isn't sure what he expected. A hospital perhaps, albeit one full of unheard of tech. It certainly wasn't what he found. The Asgardian healing rooms were calm, peaceful. More like Banner's Zen mediation chamber than any place of healing he'd ever stepped into. It was like the room itself wanted to sooth him. A shame then that he was in no mood to be soothed. At least it provided him with a place to step out of his suit.

They all sank down into the comfortable benches which seemed to litter the place and waited as a stern faced, gentle eyed woman tended to Banner's burn. She worked quietly and efficiently, evading their questions with practised skill. Even Thor's please to know of his brother were met with fond but unbending silence on the subject.

'We don't share the secrets of those we tend to Thor, not even with future kings. You know that.'

'I'm not asking as your prince, I'm asking as his brother.'

She only shakes her head, with an apologetic smile. 'Your mother is with him. She'll be out to see you soon.'

It was impossible to tell how long they sat there, just waiting. At some point food was brought. When it was carried away, the trays had barely been touched. By the time a tall, graceful woman, still beautiful despite being well past the first blush of youth entered, Banner was fully healed and just as impatient as the rest of them.

Thor jumped to his feet.

'Mother!'

She smiled, just a hint of hope in her eyes. 'Thor. Thank you for bringing him home.'

'Where is he? When can we see him?'

'Two of you can go now. Only two. He is... not conscious. Not yet.'

There was the briefest of arguments about who got to go with Thor – there being no question that he would not be one of the two. Steve made a good case that as their leader it was only right he got to check on one of his fallen men. Banner thought his medical expertise might be helpful. In the end Tony was the one who won, if only because Natasha stamped on Steve's foot really hard when he tried to argue against the idea.

He rubbed his foot, frowning in confusion.

'Fine, but I don't really understand why...'

'They're friends.'

'So are we!'

'No, we're his colleagues. It's different.'

Tony was only too happy to leave the pointless debate behind, though he made a mental note to have Natasha sent a crate of her favourite champagne when they got back. How much of his relationship with Loki she'd picked up on he wasn't sure, but he was grateful for her help and silence both.

Frigga tried to make small talk as they walked but soon gave up. If she was curious to meet her sons mortal friends she hid it well, behind her passive, cool expression. If it wasn't for the warmth in her eyes, Tony might have imagined her a statue.

She led them to a small bed chamber just off the main healing rooms. It was darker in here, the light subdued. The air was refreshingly cool. For all the grandeur around him Tony knew that he'd walked into a hospital room. There was something about the smell, or the oddly muted sound that screamed it at him.

Loki lay in the bed, looking too pale and small for such a tall, long limbed man. His eyelids fluttered every now and then, as thought he dreamt, but he made no noise beyond his quiet breathing. His arms and hands were bandaged, but that wasn't what caught Tony's attention. No, it was the cuffs at his wrists, chaining him to the bed.

'Is that really necessary? Arresting him when he's practically dead?'

'Necessary yes, but we are not taking him prisoner. It is for his own safety.'

'Mother? What do you mean?'

'He came round, briefly. He attacked your father Thor. If he does so again, the guards won't hesitate to cut him down. And I was afraid that he would turn on himself. Again.'

Thor nods, as if this is explanation enough. Tony wants to slap him, or ask why exactly Loki would attack his own father. Not that he doesn't sympathise, he had that same urge a time or two himself. And they all know that his severe case of sibling rivalry with Thor was based on a need for his father's love.

For now he saves his questions and settles down by Loki's side, squeezing one of the god's hands between his. Behind him he can hear a hushed conversation between Thor and his mother. Shortly afterwards, Thor leans over the bed to place a soft kiss on his brother's forehead.

'I will be back shortly. I need to speak to with my father.'

Tony nods his understanding, but doesn't look away from Loki's slumbering face. Frigga is so quiet that at first he thinks she left with her elder son. He almost jumps when he feels her hand on his shoulder.

'You care about him.'

It's a statement, not a question. He nods his agreement anyway.

'That is good. That he has someone. I... I think he was always very much alone, here.'

'Yeah. I really got that impression.'

'Has he been well? Thor tells me he is an avenger now. That he is paying for his crimes against Midgard by fighting for the realm. It seems a good, fitting punishment.'

'I don't think any of us really see it as punishment. Not any more.'

'You didn't answer my question. How has he been?'

This entire day has been too fucked up for words. First the man he thinks he might love turns into a crazed, blue killing machine, finishing up their enemies with the sort of savagery he's only ever had nightmares about. Something for which Thor - or someone – still owes him a serious explanation. Then that self same man attempts suicide, or something close to it. Now, he's in a strange place amongst strange people, being asked questions that should have been asked months ago.

Later, he will only wonder why it took him quite so long to snap.

'How do you think he's been? He was taken right out from under your noses and then tortured. For weeks. Whilst no one looked for him. Then he saved the world, almost at the cost of his own life. Which apparently he doesn't feel is enough for him to be considered a hero. Today he turned into a blue monster and tried to kill himself. He's been fucking wonderful.'

He's standing now and the barely contained fury in his eyes is enough to have Frigga stepping back, slowly giving ground.

'Not to mention that he's so messed up that it's all but impossible to convince him he's likeable, never mind loveable. Though, given that his own parents waited until he was at deaths door and his older brother phoned them for help before they showed any fucking interest, I think I get where his self esteem issues come from.'

There are tears in Frigga's eyes, her perfectly calm veneer cracking.

'Do you think I didn't want to look for him? That I didn't wish to know how he was? He's my son, my baby! I've loved him longer than you could live in a hundred lifetimes mortal.'

'So, why didn't you do anything? Send a message, or invite him home?'

'Because he's still a wanted criminal here, a refugee from justice. Once we admitted we knew where he was we would have no choice but to bring him home again. In chains if need be. After last time... I would rather he have his chance at freedom.'

Her words sink in slowly and he feels sick. Have they brought Loki here to save his life, only to have him thrown back in the same cell where the Chitauri got to him? He decides then and there that he won't let that happen.

'He's not staying here.'

'No. Thor is talking with the Allfather now. We hope that he can be persuaded to accept the punishment of Midgard. As for Jotunheim...'

'Where?'

'The home of the frost giants. Loki's capture and imprisonment were hoped to pave the way to a truce with them, but their actions this day have proven they hunger only for war.'

'Frost giants. Right. Is that what we were fighting today?'

'It is.'

He nods, trying to remember the stories Thor, Sif and Volstagg have shared with him. He remembers something else then too. Thor once claiming that Loki was adopted. Putting that together with the way Loki changed earlier he thinks he has an answer, a new piece to the puzzle that is Loki.

'Is Loki a frost giant?'

Frigga stares him in the eye, her expression fierce.

'Loki is Aesir, and my son.'

'Right, not disputing that. It was just a question.'

'He is of Jotun birth, yes. But no less my son for all that.'

Right. Adoption is one thing, difficult enough to handle all by itself. He knows, in his less than stellar past he's taken advantage of the vulnerability it can leave behind to get more than one girl into bed. Adoption combined with the fact that you're biologically speaking 'the enemy'? Where you have to quite literally hide your face in order to have a hope in hell of fitting in? That's so far off the scale he doesn't have a word for it.

'No wonder he's such a mess.'

He didn't mean to say it out loud, Frigga's wide eyes the first clue he has that he did. The quiet, resentful laugh from the bed is his second and he instantly wants to take the words back. There is no way, in Loki's current state of mind, that he'll manage to make Tony's words anything but a criticism.

'I suppose a mess is better than a monster.'

'Loki... I didn't mean...'

'It's OK Tony Stark. I always knew you wouldn't want me once you knew what I really was.'

'I already knew who you really were.'

The use of his full name hurts, but he knows it's just Loki's way of trying to protect himself. That it might even be an attempt to protect Tony while he's at it, give him a way out. Not that he'll take it. He sits down again, reaching out to stroke Loki's face.

'Loki, I don't care what colour skin you have OK? Though I admit it might be difficult to snuggle you when you go all frost giant. Which is kind of shame.'

'A shame? Why?'

'When we get you out of here, remind me to buy you a mirror and I'll show you.'

'Frost giants are monstrous, ugly.'

'Yeah? Well not you Loki. You're beautiful.'

Loki looks away, some much needed colour in his cheeks and it makes Tony smile. He bets in all his years, no one has ever called Loki that to his face. Except possibly his mother. Not that he thinks it's that simple, a couple of heartfelt pretty words won't be enough to undo centuries of damage. But Loki isn't ranting at anyone. His eyes are weary, but they're also clearer than he's seen them in a while. Perhaps most important of all, he's not pulling away.

'Do you think it's safe to remove these? I think your son needs a hug, and whilst I'm not against bondage this doesn't seem the time or place for it.'

Frigga nods her agreement, her own cheeks rosy. Well, that's two gods blushing in under two minutes, good work even by his standards. Loki scowls at him, though he doesn't have the energy to protest the hug. Or the inclination to argue against the removal of his bonds. Once he is safely ensconced in Tony's arms, Tony finds his humour evaporating.

There is something right about Loki's weight against his chest, something he never wants to lose.

'Please don't scare me like that again Loki.'

'I can't promise to keep my true form hidden Tony. I didn't mean to unleash it today.'

'I'm not talking about that.' He traces a hand down one of Loki's bandages. 'I mean this. You could have died! I don't want you to die.'

Loki makes no promises, but he does lay a kiss against Tony's chest before he lets his eye lids flutter closed once more and loses himself in sleep once more.

Chapter Text

When it becomes clear that Loki is going to be in recovery for a couple of days at least, the Avengers find themselves being put up in one of the royal guest wings. Despite the worry, about both Loki's health and his immediate future, it's nice to have the opportunity to wash up, change and catch up on some much needed rest.

Later, they gather in Thor's bedroom. The thunder god is quiet, much more so than they are used to.

'My father says that as his guests you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. There will be a great feast tonight in our honour.'

'Sure. Sounds good, but what about Loki?'

'He is... recovering. I think he finds Tony's presence soothing.'

It's impossible not the miss the flash of jealousy in his voice, though he does his best to hide it. Besides which, whilst he might be hurt that another has been able to achieve what he has not, Thor loves his brother too much to resent the one person who seems to bring him comfort.

'As for other matters... Here, as upon Midgard, he is a wanted man. During his short stint as King he managed to escalate a war, lead our oldest enemies into our stronghold and attempt to murder a prince of Asgard. Such deeds can not be allowed to go unpunished.'

It's Steve who dares ask the question they are all thinking.

'What does Odin intend to do about it?'

'He wishes to think on the matter, but I have made a suggestion I think he will find suitable as a form of punishment. He would have words with you on the matter, as our leader.'

Steve nods his agreement, saving his questions for now. It's Natasha, perhaps the bravest of them all who voices another concern.

'What happened... Is it going to happen again? Not that I'm inclined to complain about Loki winning a fight for us single handed. Just... He was out of control.'

'I think, perhaps taking him off active duty for a while might be in order.'

'You would kick my brother off the team Banner?'

'No. I'm talking about him taking a few sick days, just like I would for anyone else who wasn't in a fit state to fight. I know a thing or two about anger issues and he isn't someone we can rely on until he's started to manage his.'

'So... What? We lock him back up and hope he's happy to stay there until he's less crazy?'

'No Clint. I was thinking something more along the lines of therapy. In the meantime, just because he isn't up to coming out on missions doesn't mean his input isn't useful. There's a lot of good he could do back at base.'

'Well, good as all this sounds and it does, this is all a moot point until we know if Odin is going to let us take Loki back home with us. Thor, we should go and speak to him sooner rather than later.'

'Agreed. I can find out if he is free now, if that suits?'

'It does.'

'In the meantime, the rest of you should make yourselves at home. I know the circumstances are far from ideal but Asgard is a wondrous place. I've wanted to share it with you for a long time.'

 

Natasha and Clint are the first to take advantage of the offer. In all the time they've known each other, as enemies, friends and lovers, they've travelled most of earth. What they have never done is gone on holiday together. A day exploring all the hidden nooks and crannies of the golden city is the kind of date they can both get their heads round.

If Natasha feels odd or uncomfortable in the simple but elegant dress she's been given it doesn't show. One thing she's learned in all her years is to be at one with her body, however it's dressed. She moves around the place as if she has lived there her entire life, seemingly oblivious to the admiring – and in one case outright lustful – looks she receives.

Clint knows her well enough to know better however. Even as he tugs uncomfortably at the neck of his tunic, he is more than certain that she is writing a mental list, detailing every face and exactly how it reacted to her. He'd feel threatened but he knows that Natasha isn't one to be swayed by even the prettiest of faces.

Besides, he isn't short of admiring glances himself. Particularly not after they find the training grounds. His own bow is stowed carefully away back in their room, but he finds one soon enough and sends shot after flawless shot into a distant target. Apparently his skills are impressive even by the standards of the godlike Aesir.

'Show off.'

'Perhaps.'

He takes Natasha's hand as they leave, following the paths until they find themselves in the gardens. The flowers here are most certainly foreign to their eyes, but undeniably beautiful. In a rare romantic moment, Clint finds himself plucking something white and sweet smelling, tucking it into the red of Natasha's hair.

Good as it is to spend some quality time together, he can't quite keep his mind from straying to Loki. It still strikes him as odd that he cares, but there is no denying the hard knot of worry in his gut. Loki killed one of his best friends. He took over his mind and used him. For all that he has managed to forgive these trespasses, they are hard to forget. Even so, he knows that he will miss the temperamental tricksters presence if they don't manage to keep him.

Banner is torn between seeking out the libraries Loki has told him so much about or hunting out something to eat. In the end he does neither, but finds himself back in the healing chambers. He and Tony exchange nods but no words, both content for now to keep watch over their fallen comrade.

It takes him a while to realise that he feels guilty. He has seen Loki struggling, despite his attempts to counsel the man. They've all seen it. He should have realised long ago that Loki's problems were beyond his ability to fix. For all his medical knowledge, he is a scientist first, not a healer. Should they be lucky enough to retain custody – and he can't imagine that any of them will be willing to walk away and leave Loki behind – he makes a promise to his injured friend, that he will direct him towards appropriate support. During his time travelling the world, trying to find a way to manage the Hulk he met many accomplished therapists. One in particular sticks out, a woman who specialised in the treatment of trauma.

Whatever Tony's thoughts, he keeps them to himself. Not that he needs to speak, not really. His care is written in every movement he makes, in his weary, soft eyes that never leave Loki. In the way his hand sits so still over Loki's own. Banner finds himself hoping that for both their sakes, Loki not only returns the affection which has become so suddenly obvious, but is also able to accept it.

While their friends pass the time in contemplation and relaxation, Steven and Thor find themselves sat around one corner of an unnecessarily vast table with the Allfather. Thor's plan is a simple one, with precedent. Exile, as he himself faced for starting the war that Loki came so close to ending in one vast, horrifying blow.

It would allow him to continue working with the Avengers, repaying the world he once threatened by fighting to protect it. Thor can't help but recall the last time he discussed such things with his father. The months that have passed since then feel like years. Then, there was a case to be made that even a powerless Loki was too dangerous to be let loose on the world. Now...

Well now he is no less a threat in truth. There is a madness inside him, one which drives him to act against himself more than any other. Locking him away once more might protect the world, but it would do Loki himself no favours.

In the end, it is Steve's impassioned speech about rehabilitation over punishment that sways Odin. He knows he has not handled his younger son well, that for all his wisdom he has caused harm to one he sought only to protect. For all that he fears the outcome if he lets Loki out of his sight and control once more, he can not bring himself to deny him the chance of redemption. It is, perhaps, a first step at making things right.

'Fine. He may return with you, but Asgard can not and will not be held responsible for any actions he takes once he leaves.'

Odin sighs. 'I will need to make a formal announcement tonight, of his exile.'

'Will you strip him of his powers father?'

'Yes. For a time.'

'But father!'

'No, Thor. It is necessary. I will not leave him defenceless, but he is a danger to himself right now. His powers must be limited, though he will not take it all from him. In time, he shall earn them back.'

He doesn't say the words that they both long to hear. In time, he shall be able to come home.

Chapter Text

Loki wakes to find Tony dozing in a chair beside the bed. He feels a moment's relief, quickly followed by a flash of irritation. This mortal has already managed to worm his way behind his carefully constructed walls. It is not wise to allow him to get any closer. And yet...

Loki can't be sure what the wise thing to do is, or the right one. He only knows that he hurts and somehow, with his silly quips and sillier smiles Tony makes him hurt less, at least some of the time.

His arms itch, evidence that his self inflicted wounds are healing. He finds himself staring at the crisp white bandages wound around them in fascination. He did this, to himself. He can remember doing it, the way glass sheared through his skin and into his flesh. He can't remember it hurting, at the time, though it does now.

Briefly, he wonders if that was the right thing to do. The smart thing. It doesn't matter that Tony declares him not to be a monster, not really. Not when he knows different. Not when he simple can not accept the idea. His internal conflict is beyond his control, spilling out now to affect all around him. Maybe it always has. Is his death the answer?

It could be. It would certainly stop him from tearing apart his own team – a thought which sickens him, though it was once his intention. Not that it makes much difference now. He has no doubt that he will be remaining here, on Asgard. Back in a cell, forgotten and alone, left to rot. Or perhaps not. He knows too much about the defences here, the weak spots. Odin would not be so foolish as to allow him to be spirited away once more.

Perhaps then his fate is to be execution. The thought angers him, despite his own suspicion that death is the best outcome he can hope for. He would rather it be on his own terms than anybody else's. He is not sure he could stand to hear Odin proclaim him beyond saving, to give up on him so completely. He would rather die at his own hand than live with that knowledge, even for a few seconds.

As if sensing that Loki has returned to the realm of consciousness, Tony stirs beside him. He watches the man yawn and stretch, before greeting him with a smile.

'Hey there. Feeling any better?'

'I suppose.'

'Hmm. Prickly this morning. Or afternoon. Or whenever it is.'

'How else should I be?'

Tony has no answer for that, instead he responds with another question.

'What are you thinking about?'

'Nothing.'

'Right. Nothing always gives me sad eyes too.'

Loki sighs, irritated and charmed all at once.

'Fine. I was wondering what my father.. What the Allfather will do with me, now that he has me back.'

'Your father isn't going to do anything with you.'

The words hurt, though he knows they are not intended to. Whatever reassurance Tony hoped to offer him, all he has done is confirm Loki's deepest fears. That Odin doesn't even care enough about him now to take a hand in his punishment.

'Well, OK. So he kind of is. Thor said something about exile. But the point is, he's letting you come back with us.'

Exile...

Well, it is both more and less than he hoped for. In some ways he had longed for the relief of letting someone else decide his future for him. Now he finds the choice back in his own hands, with no more idea what to do with it. There again, perhaps there is some hidden message in all this. It is so easy to consider his exile simply a way of throwing him away. Discarding him, now that he is of no further use.

Yet when Thor was likewise thrown out of Asgard it was never intended to be permanent. It was simply to learn a lesson, to grow so that he was worthy of return. Does Odin then believe that he likewise has the capability to make himself worthy? What does it mean, if he does?

Part of Loki longs to speak with his former king, former father. At the same time he is not sure he is ready for such a confrontation. He has a brief recollection of being brought here, held in Odin's arms as though he was loved. Of screaming himself hoarse as he turned on the man who had lied to him for so long. The man who had raised him only to hate himself.

No, he is not ready to see him yet. He will not be stand in Odin's presence again until he can do at full strength, a whole being once more. Until he can be certain of being worthy to be there, that further hurt and rejection is not possible. If that day never comes, then so be it.

'Is Banner OK?'

He regrets not thinking to ask this earlier. The doctor has been good to him, better than he deserves. They all have. It baffles him that he is being allowed to return, not only by Odin but by the avengers themselves. He hurt a team-mate, someone intent on helping him. His very touch is poison. Yet here they are, giving him yet another chance.

'He's fine. He was here, earlier, to check on you.'

'Remind me to thank him later.'

Now Tony's grin is broad, lighting up his face with new energy.

'You're coming home with us then?'

'I... Yes.'

He can not bring himself to call it home yet. In his heart, he still feels as though he has none. But if one is to be found, he sense that it could well be at the side of this man.

It is another two days before he is declared well enough to travel. No one thinks to share with him all the terms of his release, so that he finds himself stumbling with shock when he feels the magic being wrenched from him when he steps onto the bi-frost.

Tony catches him, steadies him with an apologetic look.

'OK?'

He wants to shout, to scream. No, he is not OK. His magic is part of him, has always been part of him. He is being stripped of more than power, he is being stripped of himself. When he reaches out, there is answering surge of energy. Not as much as he is used to, not enough. But it is something, at least.

His physical strength is undiminished, and though he would trade it all in a heartbeat there is some relief to be found there. Even so he trembles with the loss. He has not felt so empty since he was kept as a chained Chitauri pet. The memory leaves him clinging to Tony's arm as they are pulled back to Midgard.

Later he lies in Tony's arms, unable to keep back the grief stricken sobs. How can he explain to anybody what this means? It feels like being naked in a room full of armoured men, whilst still being expected to fight. He feels diminished, less than he was. What does he have to offer them now.

'Your mind.' Tony whispers into his ear. 'Your knowledge and wits and ideas. You Loki, you have you to offer.'

He can not make Tony understand that with the last vestiges of godhood ripped from him he no longer has any idea who or what he is. Tony claims he is not a monster, he no longer has the power of a god and is not ready to accept the role of hero. A distant voice supplies him with an answer.

'You are nothing.'

He must have said more out loud than he expected, for Tony is holding him tighter.

'You are not nothing Loki. You are wonderful. Beautiful.'

He can think of nothing smart to say so he lifts his face, places his lips against Tony's and begs.

'Make me feel beautiful, please.'

After that there are no more words, only the softest of kisses. Gentle touches, which are like nothing he has ever felt before. In Tony's bed he is no conquest to brag of over a tankard in the dining hall. Nor is something to be used and punished. When Tony's hand slides down his body, seeking him out with a cautious, questioning hand he does not pull away and it is with clever, caring hands that his pleasure is drawn from him until he comes, whimpering his release against Tony's shoulder.

There is no returning of favours as he lies shaking against his new found lover afterwards. Only strong arms holding him close. Only Tony's voice, husky with some emotion Loki is afraid to name.

'It will be OK Loki, I promise. It's going to be OK.'

Chapter Text

In the first two days that follow his return to Midgard, the one thing Loki is sure of is that he's not OK, not even slightly. His life has been ever changing. He's been a foundling, a son and a brother. He's been a disappointment, an entertainer, even a healer. He's been a monster and a god. Through all of that the only constant has been his magic and without it he feels lost.

 

Not that it is gone entirely. There are traces of his power that he can feel, that he can reach for. He spends much of the day grabbing at it desperately, shaping it into green, flickering flames, into copies of himself. It is not enough. None of these things last the way they are meant to and his efforts leave him weary and drained in a way they never have before.

He spends most of the night weeping into his lover's chest, unable to find the words to explain just how great a loss this is for him. Out of nowhere – or so it seems – it is Natasha and Clint who seek him out, with a suggestion. They can't know what it means, but they do know what it is to feel weakened, to feel lesser.

Between Natasha's clever words and Barton's stubborn strength of will they coax him out to fight with them. To spar. To remind him that his strength has never lain in magic alone, that his quick mind is capable of clever strategies without magic to back it up. He appreciates the effort they are making, even if it does confuse him.

At first, he finds himself cautious in a way he has never been before. He has grown dependant on his powers, giving little thought to his physical prowess, which is in any case so slight in comparison with Thor. Not that he doubts his abilities, he remembers well teaching Natasha a move which she has since mastered, remembers how impressed his team mates were at his clever tactics on the battle field.

Even so, in so many little ways he had relied on his magic even here. Without ever realising it, he had used it to maintain an astonishing awareness of where everybody was, so that he had been able to keep track of foe and ally alike, figuring out when and how his skills could be best applied. It is Natasha who takes him to one side when he grows frustrated in his confusion at losing this awareness.

'Loki, give yourself a break, please. You're a phenomenal fighter. And hey, at least you get super strength.'

He knows that his self pity must be an ugly thing, but that makes it no easier to give up. He half expects Fury to throw him in a cell again, or at the very least cut him lose from the team. After all, what kind of threat can he be now? What kind of help? The man does no such thing, instead dragging Loki into one endless meeting after another, plundering his mind for information and ideas. Loki knows far more than any human about exactly what is out there, amongst the stars.

He is happy to answer these questions but can't help keeping a little back. If he tells them everything he will be of no further use to them. He doesn't want that, not now. Besides, when SHIELD and the Avengers grow tired of him, when they forget about him, he will need some secrets of his own. Some way to keep himself safe, or to draw their attention back to him.

He can't stand the thought of being forgotten. Abandoned. Unimportant. He would rather be hated than that.

It is a week after their return when Tony stops him from heading down to the gym for a training session. He catches Loki's hand in his own, gives it a gentle squeeze.

'I think you should go and see Bruce this morning. He's been chatting to a friend of his, some quack or other. Apparently she's given him some suggestions on how to help.'

Loki hesitates, uncertain. It's not that he doesn't want help, it's not quite that simple. He doesn't want to need help, and nothing in his life has prepared him for the offer of such. It is with hesitant steps that he approaches Banner's lab, his anxiety not eased even slightly by the man's friendly grin.

'Loki! I'm glad you came.'

'Was there ever any doubt?'

'Of course. Healing is something we all want, but being brave enough to accept it? That's no easy thing.'

Loki blinks, taken aback. He lets himself collapse gracefully into a chair, his gaze questioning.

'You think I am brave?'

'Yes. Don't you?'

'I... I have never really thought about it.'

'Hmm. Well, hopefully it's something you will be able to think about soon. Along with some other stuff.'

'Tony said you had some ideas? About how to... help me.'

'Indeed!' Banner sighed and ran a hand through his short but still unruly hair.

'I'm really sorry Loki. I had hoped that a friend of mine would be able to come here. She helped me, a lot, more than she'll ever know a while back. Sadly, she's otherwise occupied at the moment.'

Loki is shocked by the wave of disappointment that floods through him. Is this why Banner asked him here, to tell him that he was beyond help? Or rather, not important enough to try and save.

'She has given me a few ideas though, things we can try.'

They start with something Banner calls 'the empty chair' technique. It does not go well. The entire situation is ridiculous. Fake confrontations, where he is expected to play both sides, then talk about how it felt. Like he hasn't imagined talking with his fath – with the the Allfather a hundred times or more, considered every possible outcome. Like he isn't confronted with the real Thor every single day, bringing his confused and conflicted feelings to play each and every time. When Banner asks how he feels about confronting the Chitauri, or Thanos, he picks the chair up and throws it, smashing thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

Even so, as the days continue bringing with them only frustration, Banner persists. Against his better judgement, Loki allows him too. He can not see how this is helping – how it could ever help – but he is too worn out, too desperate not to try.

One day, nearly a fortnight after they started, he adds his own twist to the arrangement. He draws on the scraps of power he has left and fills the stupid empty chair sat across from him with Odin's image. It moves like him, talks like him, fills the space the way he would if he were here. Still, the figure sat glowering across from him, eyes full of cold, angry disappointment is not real. He knows that, he does, but looking into that familiar face he feels something more than he has for a while.

He had so many words he wanted to throw at the god. So many questions that demand answers. Yet here and now, confronted by an already flickering version of him, the words that escape him are not the ones he wishes to speak.

'Don't look at me like that, please.'

Banner takes in a slow, deep breath. He has tried to take a back seat here, to let Loki direct these sessions and with the appearance of the Odin copy, he knows he is about to witness some kind of breakthrough. He sees the way the Odin clone stares at Loki, with nothing but contempt in his eyes and winces. He knows, from the stories Thor has told, that the Allfather can be stern at times, but the thunder god has always sworn that he is also kind. There is nothing kind about the look directed at Loki now.

'Why can't you be proud of me, just once? Why don't you love me?'

There is a catch in Loki's voice, something so broken and lost that it takes all of Banner's hard won control not to run over and envelop the man in his arms. Anything to soothe that pain.

'I MADE you and you still don't love me.'

Loki turns away, lets the flickering image die. He lets his gaze flicker to Banner.

'Why can't I make him love me?'

'Are you so sure that he doesn't?'

'Yes. Of that I am certain.'

Banner nods, though he is by no means convinced. It is certainly true that Odin has harmed his son greatly. That his behaviour towards him, his treatment of him has been less than stellar. Yet, despite that, he senses that Odin does love him, even as he loves Thor. In which case, Loki's absolute certainty that the man who raised him despises him is more telling than the trickster knows.

The next time they meet, Banner makes a suggestion. Instead of Loki role-playing confrontations and conversations with others he wants him to face himself. With an almost casual wave of his hand, Loki brings a copy of himself into being. The false Loki looks upon his creator with the same revulsion the fake Odin had held in it's eyes.

They sit in uncomfortable silence for a while, only the soft, cautious sounds of tense breathing to fill the room. Bruce doesn't realise he has been holding his breath until he finds himself releasing it in a sigh when Loki finally speaks.

'Why did you do it?'

Banner doesn't know precisely what Loki is asking himself, but he keeps his silence. He doesn't need to know every intimate detail of Loki's thoughts, of his mind and his life. He only needs to guide Loki in his attempts to find peace, to accept himself. Perhaps even to forgive himself, if he is able.

'Don't you know?'

There is only scorn in the copy's voice. Disdain. It casts a mocking look over the real Loki before continuing. It's voice is full of loathing as it's appearance alters, the pinkness of it's skin fading away as it's flesh allows deep blue to creep over it.

'We are a monster. All our life we have heard tales of our vile nature. We can not be anything else. We do not know how.'

Loki glances away, his mouth twitching into a snarl at the sight before him. He can not bring himself to look at the creature who forces him to confront his innermost fears and horrors.

'I don't want to be a monster.'

'But that is what we ARE. It is not about want. We wanted to be a prince. We wanted to be loved. We wanted to be an equal. But we are not those things. We can never be those things. We are only this.'

Loki, the real one, jumps up in an unnaturally fluid, graceful motion. He leaps at the copy, hands clawed, nails ready to rip and tear. Only the insubstantial thing vanishes at the first touch, flickering into nothing. Leaving him with no one and nothing to vent his anger, his hatred at. Nothing but himself. So he does, tearing at his own skin.

Banner has enough time to be grateful that Loki isn't armed with anything more effective than his own blunt nails before he is moving. He slides his arms around the god from behind, catching his wrists and pulling his hands away from his arms.

'Shh Loki. Calm down. It's OK.'

'It's not OK! Don't you dare lie to me.'

Banner holds on, though it is a struggle. He has none of the strength of the Hulk, not right now, and Loki's wiry strength is far beyond his own. He stops thinking, concentrating every atom of his being on holding Loki, restraining him. Perhaps Loki seeks that restraint, for he gives in before Bruce's strength gives out. He allows himself to be held, panting.

When Banner thinks he is calm enough, he tries again.

'You said you don't want to be a monster Loki. So what do you want?'

'I... I don't know. What does it matter? I am what I am.'

'You have a choice Loki. You can be whatever you want to be. Being of Jotun birth... I don't care what stories you've heard your entire life, that doesn't make you a monster.'

'No? And what would you know about that?'

Banner releases him and shrugs.

'I know what Thor tells me. About how you went with him on quests, how you helped to save people. How you liked to play pranks, but ultimately your heart was always in the right place. You never played the part of monster Loki, not until your heritage was revealed to you. I know that we're all more than simple biology.'

'But I was a monster, whether I knew it or not.'

'OK then. Tell me, tell me all the monstrous things you did.'

Loki snarls at him, but he doesn't offer up any stories. They both know there are none, not really. Only the impetuous acts of a jealous, insecure child, desperate for recognition – whatever the price.
When he does speak, it's to ask a question Banner wasn't expecting. One so simple, but without any easy answer. One that breaks his heart.

'If I'm not a monster, then why... Why was I never good enough?'

'Loki... I... How do you know you weren't?'

The story that Loki spins for him then is all too familiar, a tale told the world over. It features a boy, smarter than most but unable to find the right words to win him friends with ease. Awkward in his arrogance, brash in his insecurity. Vying for the attention and love of his parents, his peers, his older brother. A brother who is both hero and competition at one and the same time. Loki's is a mind which remembers every perceived slight, every derisive look and comment and act, storing them up. He has filled himself so full with other's negative views that he has left no room for anything else.

In being compared so often to Thor by others he has learned only to define himself by all the ways in which he is different. In doing so, in seeing all the ways he is not as good as Thor he has lost any ability to see the ways in which he is better.

The task ahead is a daunting one, but Banner feels more hope than he has for a while. Teaching Loki that he has value is going to take time, but he has to believe it is possible. Though Loki might not realise it yet, the fact that he is still here and still trying is proof enough that he believes it too.

'Well then. I have some homework for you.'

'Homework? What am I, a child?'

'No. I want you to make me a list. Five things you've done and been proud of.'

'What for?'

'Loki, just trust me on this please. It will help.'

The god still looks disgruntled and out of sorts as he leaves, but Banner is still able to elicit a promise from him that he will try and complete the task. The day has been difficult, more than but Banner knows he was right. They have indeed reached a breakthrough.

Chapter Text

Loki has been sitting staring at a blank pad of paper for a while when Tony finds him. If looks alone were enough to destroy something – and with Loki it very well might be – then by rights the pad should have exploded long ago.

'Hey you. What are you up to?'

'I am meant to be writing a list. For Banner.'

'Huh. A list of what exactly?'

'He wants me to write down five things I am proud of doing.'

'Seems easy enough.'

'It's not easy. It's stupid. Pointless.'

'Right. Want a hand?'

Loki shrugs, the action little more than an angry jerk of his shoulders. Tony chooses to take it as a positive response and sits down beside his lover. He takes the pen and paper from Loki, balancing the pad on his knee.

'OK then. You talk, I'll write.'

'And what exactly am I meant to say?'

'I don't know. There must be something you've done that you're proud of. Like... I dunno. Do you have school in Asgard?'

'We were princes. We had tutors.'

'Right. Well, you're pretty smart. I can't help but think you must have impressed them a time or two, right?'

'I am more than smart Tony.'

There is truth in his mortal's words however. He bites his lips as he thinks it over. It was no secret in their childhood that while Thor excelled in the training grounds Loki was the superior in their less physical lessons. He has not thought of it in years, when he does it is far too easy to remember how his often too astute observations left his tutor's uneasy.

He doesn't want to explain that to Tony now however, instead he seeks for a happier memory. The day their history teacher had requested a meeting with Odin, to tell him that he had run out of things to teach his younger son. Yes, that had been a proud day. Not that it had lasted. A Loki without lessons to attend to had soon grown bored and dropped himself and Thor both into a level of trouble that Asgard was keen not to see repeated. Even so, he was the youngest in Asgard's history to outgrow the capabilities of the best tutor's and historians in the realm. That was something to be proud of.

He shares the memory with Tony, who writes it down with a grin. After that, the process becomes easier. The first time he mastered a spell. The first time he beat Thor in a fight, using his brains to best Thor's brawn. The only time he beat Odin in an argument, his clever words managing to win past even the Allfather's famed wisdom. It is then that he runs out of steam, seeking but not finding another moment he could be truly proud of.

'How about, that time you saved the world?'

'I... No. I am not proud of that.'

'You aren't? God. You REALLY aren't! Loki, why not?'

Loki finds himself squirming beside Tony. This is touching far too close to things he doesn't want to think about, never mind talk about. He can not bring himself to look Tony in the eye as he speaks.

'I... I gave in to the enemy. I crawled to him, at his request. I...'

He can not say it. It doesn't matter that Tony was there, that he witnessed first hand what happened. Saying it out loud would make it real in a way he isn't ready to deal with. Tony's hand reaching for his and giving it a firm, gentle squeeze should be comforting but he finds himself pulling away from the touch. Afraid, suddenly, than he will sully the man if he allows it.

Tony sighs, softly.

'Do you want to know what I saw that day? I saw a man refuse to be made into a victim. I saw someone fight back, against all the odds. I saw him give everything he had to save not only the world, but people he had only ever thought of as his enemies. Loki... What Thanos did to you would break most people, but you didn't let it break you. You... You didn't let him win.'

Now Loki finds himself seeking out Tony's gaze, searching it for the faintest sign of deceit. When he finds none, only gentle compassion and fierce pride he shakes his head, confused.

'You really believe that, don't you?'

'Well, yeah. We all do. Fuck Loki, anyone else would have been too fucked up by that to do what you did. I mean, not necessarily blowing everything up. I can see how that might be a natural reaction. But keeping it together enough to get everyone out alive? I don't think I could have done that.'

'I don't think you would ever find yourself in the position I did.'

'Really? Because I've got to tell you Loki, humans have done some pretty messed up things to each other over the years. Mostly without the use of magical mind control. So, sure, I've not been where you have. I've not experienced that. But let me assure you, there are all kinds of ways to make people do things they don't want to do and that includes me.'

They sit in silence for a moment before Tony nudges Loki in the arm.

'So can I put it down, you saving the world?

'No.'

'No?'
'I... Saving the world was as much about revenge as anything else Tony. It wouldn't be right.'

With a faint flush to his cheeks and a sudden shyness which Tony hadn't seen before, Loki reached for the pad. He scrawled something on it in his ridiculous ornate script. As Tony read the words, he felt his face split into a huge grin.

'#5 Saving the team from Thanos.'

Thinking quickly, Tony grabbed the pen and paper back. He had something to add, something he didn't think Loki would be able to take in now but might be able to later. It certainly couldn't hurt to add it to the list.

'#6 Not giving up.'

He handed it back with a smile.

'Figured it couldn't hurt to have a spare.'

Chapter Text

If thinking of a handful of times he'd been proud of his actions was hard, then the next stage on Banner's process was next to impossible. On an intellectual level, Loki more than understood what they were trying to do. It sounded simple enough, after all.

All that was required of him was that he remind himself every day of his reasons to be proud. At Banner's behest he kept the list on him and added to it, when he thought of something. Or allowed Tony to add to it. The idea of course was him to focus on the positive, to recognise the times he had done well. To find and keep close evidence of himself as something other than the monster he feared he was.

In reality, none of this was simple or easy. More than once he tore the list up in a fit of rage, only to end up writing it out again with Tony's help once he had calmed down once more. He had never realised until now just how much he resisted the idea of himself as a person who was worthwhile, who had value. As someone who could be good, given half a chance.

It was all too easy to lay the blame for his bitter self loathing at the Chitauri's door, or to try and date it from the moment he found out about his Jotun heritage. He longed now for that to be true, but it was growing increasingly clear that it wasn't. Not that those things hadn't harmed him – they had. Badly. But they had only ripped open the cracks which were already present in his fragile sense of self worth.

Snuggling up against Tony, he found himself wanting to talk about it. Which was a first for him and he wasn't at all sure how to make a start. Speaking was another thing which had always struck him as easy, but was now proving to be anything but. Even for one as gifted with words as he was there were some things it was all but impossible to say.

'Tony?'

'Mmm?'

Tony put down the paper he'd been reading and slid an arm around the man resting against his side.

'I... Do you think bad things happen to good people?'

'Well, yeah. Life sucks that way. Why?'

'I... When the Chitauri took me. I-I had done so many bad things. And no one came for me. I thought... I thought it was what I deserved.'

Tony frowned, his arm tightening around Loki's shoulders.

'You didn't deserve it. OK? Not even a bit.'

'But I did do bad things.'

'Yeah. You really did, and one day I hope we'll be able to talk about why. But Loki, what they did to you... No one deserves that, OK?'

'So, do you think good people can do bad things?'

'Sure. I think good people do bad things every day Loki. It's only when they keep doing them, when they stop caring about how much they're hurting people or worse, like hurting them that they become bad people. In my opinion anyway.'

'Do you think I am a bad person?'

Tony has been expecting the question, for a while now. He turns his head so that he can look Loki fully in the eyes.

'No. I did, once. But here's the thing Loki. Since you escaped the Chitauri, all I've seen is someone who's trying to be a better person. So, do I think you did terrible things? Definitely. Do I think you're just some fucked up villain beyond the point of redemption?'

He leans in, catching Loki's lips in his. He hopes the kiss speaks for him, but knowing Loki as he now does he decides to drum the point home.

'I think you have it in you to be one of the greatest heroes this world has ever seen. I believe you are a good man Loki, or at least that you can be. And that you want to be. If I didn't think that, I wouldn't be with you. OK?'

'OK..'

Loki traces a finger across his lips, touching the place Tony had just kissed him.

'What if you're wrong? What if I don't want to be a good person? What if I can't be?'

Tony hates the way his blood runs cold at the thought. Is Loki trying to tell him something? Is he thinking about going back to his old ways? God knows reforming yourself isn't easy. He can remember all too well how he struggled, how it was easier to lose himself in alcohol and women than it was to make a concerted effort to be good. Yet he persevered and here he was, Iron Man. Hero of the people.

Loki had so much further to climb than he did though, the pit he had dug for himself – with an awful lot of help – so deep it threatened to bury him in darkness forever if he couldn't climb out of it. Tony had to believe that Loki would keep trying, that he would let Tony give him a helping hand when he thought he was slipping. So in the end, that's his answer.

'I'm not wrong Loki. Trust me. Any time you feel yourself slipping, I'll be there to catch you.'

'Promise?'

'Cross my heart.'

Loki snuggles back into his side, letting his head fall onto Tony's shoulder.

'I think I am growing more than a little fond of you Mr Stark.'

'Yeah? Well feelings mutual.'

Loki cuddles up to the warmth, the security that Tony offers. Somehow the man has become more than his friend and occasional lover. He's become a safe place for Loki to relax. His head isn't always clearer around Tony, but the thoughts which flicker through it – whether they be dark or full of conflicted desires – are somehow more manageable when he's near the man.

'I don't know why I did it.'

'What's that?'

'Teaming up with the Chitauri. Coming here. I don't know why, not really. I-I just wanted to hurt Thor, to see him hurting like I was. I didn't mean to...'

'To what?'

'When they found me, I was not at my best. All I could think of was Thor and Odin. Looking down on me. Defeated as always. I was so angry...'

'What happened?'

'I don't know. Not really. I was full of rage and they offered to help me direct it. I didn't think much beyond that, not for a while. Then when I did... It was too late.'

'Too late how?'

'I already owed them. And the price of failure... Well, you saw the aftermath of that.'

Loki sighs against him, an unhappy voice. Tony can feel him tensing up and when he next speaks his voice is tight with misery.

'I was ready to condemn the entire world because I was afraid of failure Tony. I... How can you say that doesn't make me monstrous.'

'So, if we hadn't stopped you would you have really done it? Taken over earth?'

'I... Yes. But I would have been a benevolent ruler Tony. I didn't want to hurt anyone.'

'Enslaving people hurts them Loki, removing their choices hurts them. And for the record, a benevolent dictator is still a dictator and that's not a good thing. Besides, you came with an army. You started a war. You must have known that would hurt people.'

'I... Yes. But war is the Aesir way. And what would you rather, to be ruled by me or by the Chitauri? By Thanos? He would have destroyed you all, just for the fun of it.'

'So what, you're the lesser of three evils?'

Loki flinches at that. 'So, you do think me evil?'

'Shit. Loki, that isn't what I'm saying. I'm just trying to understand, to make you understand.'

'I do. I know what I did, what I tried to do. But I wasn't... I think I wasn't thinking clearly at the time. Not when they made the offer. By the time I was...'

'It was too late. Yeah, I know.'

'I didn't want to win.'

This time his voice is barely more than a whisper.

'What?'

'I didn't want to win. I was terrified of losing, but I... I wanted you to win. You avengers, with your silly costumes and code names.'

'You think our names are silly?'

'Don't you?'

'Well, you're one of us now. So if we're silly then so are you.'

Silly is something Loki decides he can live with, especially when there are more important things for him to worry about.

'Do you forgive me Tony?'

'Loki, I forgave you a long time ago. I think we all have – though I wouldn't go around expecting the general public to welcome you with open arms any time soon. It's not my forgiveness you need.'

With Tony's words, some of the tension leaks from Loki's muscles. Conversations like this often feel like trying to cross a mine field, but they seem to have weathered this one with no major damage done. Tony can't pretend that he's not surprised by the turn their conversation took. Truthfully, he's tried not to think lately about Loki's actions and the deaths they caused. It's been all too easy to think of Loki's time with the Chitauri as punishment enough for what he did, but he realises now that might not be healthy for anyone.

What happened to Loki wasn't punishment and can't be treated as such. It was something else, something which they can't afford to let him think was acceptable under circumstances. The consequences of his actions are what he has now, fighting alongside the avengers, working to better both the world around him and himself. It's the chance to rehabilitate and redeem himself.

Stroking a hand through Loki's hair, he can't help but think that Loki might just be learning that, slowly.

Chapter Text

Loki is arguing with a copy of himself, too engaged in working out his own self hate using cold, hard logic to worry about the fact that his ongoing debate is being watched by Banner. Bruce tries to remain unobtrusive as he scrawls quick notes on the pad in front of him. In the last few weeks he's seen Loki take some rather large steps. Though he was startled when Loki took his latest suggestion to find evidence to support the idea that he had value quite so literally.

Loki had turned up to his latest therapy session armed with written testimonies from his team mates, detailing the good things he had done since joining them, along with video footage of him besting Steve in a fight during last night's training session. Still, for the first time he sensed that what they were trying here was actually working.

Loki still kept a tight wall round his inner defences, there were still many things he simply refused to talk about – such as his time with the Chitauri – but he seemed to be coming round to the idea that he could do some good as an Avenger. More importantly, he appeared to have developed an intense desire to do good, in a way which worked within the moral constraints of the world he found himself upon.

For his part, Banner was growing to realise that most of Loki's actions hadn't arisen from any attempts to be evil – though he still seemed inclined to view his nature as such – but rather from misguided attempts to succeed at something. At anything. Even now, being seen to do well seemed more important to Loki than anything else. It was as though his accomplishments and deeds meant nothing unless they were witnessed and recognised by others. Which was something they would have to address, but for now it was a step in the right direction.

How much damage and destruction could have been averted if those Loki loved and looked up had been a little better at celebrating his deeds, rather than focussing so much on those they deemed wrong? It was a pointless question, but Banner was clear in his own mind that for Loki's recovery to continue at some point his parents and brother would need to acknowledge their own mistreatment of him and alter their behaviour towards him. Not that Loki was entirely blameless of course.

Still, Bruce found himself reluctant to push the matter of Loki's wrong doing just yet. Loki was far too quick to assume blame, to wallow in his own guilt and self loathing. Until Banner was sure the man was strong enough to discuss what he had done – both they whys and the recompense for it – it wasn't a subject he was willing to raise. If Loki did, as Tony confessed he had with him, that was a different matter.

Loki was startled into silence at the same time as Bruce was pulled from his thoughts. The ground beneath them shook, hard enough to force Loki to lose his balance, if only for a moment. Less than a second later the alarms rang out.

'What was that?'

'I have no idea, but I think we should go and find out.'

The Loki copy snaps out existence in a second a the real thing follows Banner out of the door at a run. There is no sound beyond that of the wailing alarm and the thud of their own feet on the ground. Loki can't decide it that's a good thing or not, but he can't quite hide his relief when he spots Thor, Steve and Tony entering the war room just ahead of them.

Fury is already inside with Clint and Agent Hill, but Natasha is no where in evidence. As Thor lets Fury know that Jane, Darcy and Pepper are all safe Loki finds himself gravitating to Tony's side. He strokes a finger across one of the suit summoning bracelets on Tony's wrist, reassured by their presence. If there is one thing Tony is good at it's keeping himself safe, but none the less he decides to stick close to him.

Fury clears his throat, the only signal he needs for everyone to shut up and pay attention.

'We don't have much to go on people. There was an explosion in the lower basement – no Tony, not in your lab – which appears to have taken out the holding cells. Evacuation of all non Avenger operatives and personnel has begun.'

'What's down there?'

'Nothing we can think of that would be a target Steve. This could just be a distraction. What matters now is getting someone down there to find out. Not to mention that someone had to get inside to plant the damn bomb in the first place.'

'So, what? An inside job?'

'That's my worry. It's also why everyone is being cleared out except you guys. You're the only ones I'm sure I can trust. Natasha headed towards the blast straight away, but she's not been in contact since and I can't raise her on the comms. I have faith in her ability to look after herself, but we can't ignore the possibility that whoever – or whatever – is down there is packing a punch hard enough to take the Widow down.'

Loki spares Clint a glance, long enough to see the tormented anger in his gaze before he shuts it town. To notice the way his hands clench just that little bit too hard around his bow. He's surprised by the depth of his own concern, but then Natasha has gone out of her way to make him feel accepted. She trains with him and if she watches him with suspicion much of the time, she's quick to help him out when she spots that he's struggling.

It's almost a relief when he's part of the team sent downstairs, rather than one of those set to search the upper levels. Clint leads the way, followed by Loki, Tony and Thor. When they finally hit the basement the scene that greets them is one of shadows and carnage. Even down here, there had been people working. Checking that the cells security systems were in tact, making adjustments, testing out the latest measures to hold super powered villains – and occasionally friends.

Now, there is no sign of life only bodies, discarded. Bodies that have been torn apart, not by the explosion – though Loki gags when he sees the charred, booted foot of a fallen agent – but by something else. Those who were working down here have been torn limb from limb. No body has been left whole or in tact. Beside him, he can hear Clint retching, Tony swearing. His own mind is ridiculously clear. It is not the first time he has seen such brutality. He knows he has inflicted such, just once, when fighting his unwanted brethren.

Perhaps it is that fact which keeps his head cool and calm, even when Thor is wide eyed with horror, temporarily lost for what to do, how to proceed. When no one else acts, Loki finds himself stepping up to take charge. Stood here like this they are achieving nothing, except to make possible targets of themselves.

'We need to apprehend whatever did this, and we need to find Natasha. Now.'

'Y-yeah. OK.'

Clint's voice is shaky, but in that moment Loki is oddly proud of him for being able to speak at all, when even Tony has fallen silent.

'Clint, get up high. It's where you are at your best and we need eyes on this. Tony, keep an eye on him. Whatever did this is too strong for any of us to tackle alone. Thor, we should... We should stick together.'

His own voice falters then. He wants Tony at his side, in sight at all times. But Tony, suited up as he now is, has the ability to fly which means he's the only one who can keep an eye on Clint. He finds himself searching his plan for flaws, knowing Thor will be all too quick to point them out. Some awful, cold part of himself is counting body parts, matching them up so that he can figure out how many have died here. He counts, trying not to think of the fallen as people – not right now. If he does, then the horror they are facing will overwhelm him.

He realises he is still waiting for Thor to object, to take over – as he should, Thor is the natural leader here, not Loki. Never Loki. Yet no objections come. Thor lifts his hammer high and looks to Loki, even as Clint is climbing the walls.

'Which way brother?'

'Left. We'll start with the left.'

A heavy, mechanized hand rests briefly on his shoulder. When it squeezes, Loki knows it should hurt a little but it doesn't. The pressure is made entirely of comfort, as is Tony's voice – soft even over the comms.

'Don't worry, I'll be keeping an eye on the pair of you too. Just shout if you need me.'

With a nod, Loki follows Thor into through a doorway to the left, into a corridor that should be lined with empty cells. The first is not empty, containing yet another corpse. This one is almost whole, only the head torn from it. That makes seven, Loki tells himself and shudders.

The second and third are exactly as they should be, but the fourth...

Natasha is back against the far wall. If it was anyone else Loki would have said they were cowering, but this was the Black Widow and she didn't cower. Not truly. Not that she was fearless, far from it, but she made her emotions work for her in a way that left even Loki impressed. This was, after all, the woman who had managed to manipulate even him. So he doesn't waste time looking to her, she'll seize the opportune moment to save herself when it arises. If no such opportunity exists, she'll create one.

Instead, he lets all of his attention fix on the creature which stands before her. It is monstrous, grey skin hanging in lose folds, clawed hands sharp as any blade, jaws wide open to reveal rows of shark like teeth. It raises it's hand, whips it towards Natasha so fast Loki almost doesn't have time to react. The widow has been expecting such a move, of course. She grins, feral and deadly even as she dodges to safety, using the attacking limb to swing herself out of harms way, wrenching it back as she does so.

All would have been fine, but for Thor. Thor, who is too protective for his own good and jumps forward to save his friend. Thor, who gets in the way, sending her tumbling to the floor and catching the full brunt of the creature's second attack.

Over the comms, Loki can hear Clint. Telling them that he has spotted two more of the creatures. One he's taken out, with two shots and an exploding arrow. The other Tony is firing at, sticking to ranged weapons after it got in lucky swipe. Loki knows he should respond but he can't take his eyes off Thor, crumpling to the ground, blood gushing from his throat.

He can hear Natasha screaming at him to do something, to help. So he does the only thing he can. He draws on the meagre magical strength he has, sending out a dozen copies of himself to distract the beast. Then he sidles past, crouching beside his fallen brother.

'Tony? When you are done we have another here we could use your help with.'

'Got it Loki. We're on our way.'

He lays his hand against his brother's wound. It is bad, so very bad. Even one as strong and might as Thor can be felled if he loses enough blood, and Loki knows there are only seconds left before it will be too late to save him. He focusses, pushing what remains of his power into the wound. It hurts Thor, he knows that, but he doesn't have the time or the power to do this slowly or with finesse. He wills the flesh to draw back together with the power of his mind alone. Forces veins and arteries to repair their tattered and torn walls. He pushes every last ounce of strength he has into Thor, until blinding white spots appear in his vision, until the world narrows down to just this.

Distantly, he hears something roaring. The blasts of Tony's weapons. The near silent thud of Clint's arrows hitting home. Then someone – Natasha? - is pulling him off Thor and he wants to scream at them that he is not done.

'Loki? You can stop. He's OK now, he's OK.'

When his vision clears – which takes so much longer than it should – Loki glances back at Thor. OK is not an apt description. The thunder god is pale, far too pale. But there is no sign of the terrifying wide gashes that were all that remained of his throat moments before. He is breathing and conscious, if barely.

The creature has been reduced to soft, fleshy lumps. It has fallen apart and resembles nothing so much now as slightly damp, grey clay. Ah.

'They are golems.'

'Golems?'

Tony's voice is puzzled.

'Constructs. Not living things. They have been created and sent here, for what purpose I can not imagine.'

'Guys?'

The voice is Steve's, loud and clear though he is floors away.

'You need to get up here. Fury was right, it was a distraction. If you're done down there, he wants us to gather in the war room so we can figure out our next steps.'

Loki stands on trembling legs, all too relieved when Tony is suddenly there to support him. Clint and Natasha are helping Thor climb to his feet. Already the colour is returning to his cheeks, though he is weakened and will take time to recover fully.

'Loki? You- you saved my life.'

'Yes. Try not to be so careless with it in future.'

There is something of the old Loki there, in the sarcastic banter. Inside his mask Tony smiles. Let Loki hide his relief and joy behind harsh words, they are all growing to know him well enough to see what lies behind it now.

'Come on, we should go find out what this was really about.'

'Yes. And we should... We should make arrangements for the fallen. They shouldn't be left down here like this.'

'Of course, Loki.'

Tony smiles again as they all follow Loki back upstairs. He doesn't think his lover has noticed any of it. The way they let him take the lead now. The way he was the only one who could, earlier. He can think of many things to add to that list now and if Loki doesn't see them himself then Tony will add them for him.

Chapter Text

I am really sorry but this is not actually a new chapter to the story but rather an apology and an explanation. Real life has not been kind to me lately and I am currently very unwell. I don't want to go into too much detail about that, suffice it to say that I have ongoing health issues and they have been very difficult to deal with just lately. Which has left me with no energy/inspiration for writing.

I am so very touched by the fact that there are still people reading this and waiting so patiently for updates. It means a lot. I am sorry there has been such a long wait with no updates but I can assure you that as and when my health improves there will be. I have the rest of this story plotted out and I have no intention of abandoning it. This series is probably the best thing I have ever written and I want to complete it and share it with you all. :)

So, thank you again for your patience and sorry for leaving it for so long.

Chapter Text

They find the others already gathered in Fury's office. Fury himself is tightlipped and stern faced, anger showing past his usual stoicism. Whatever the news is, it's nothing good. Fury waited until everybody was seated to speak, but both Cap and Banner were struggling to keep their gaze from Loki. So, whatever was up it had to do with him. Instinctively, Tony crowded closer to his lover, unsurprised (and relieved) to note that Thor was likewise sticking to his side.

After seeing his brother almost die - and whatever Loki might say to the contrary it was clear to Tony at least that he thought of Thor that way - was bad enough. He wasn't sure just how much the still fragile and far from healed god could take right now. As ever, Loki seemed to be bringing out his protective side and when Fury finally spoke he was glad of that.

'It was definitely an inside job, and whatever was going on in the cells was definitely a distraction.'

'You might want to phrase that with more sensitivity when you tell the loved ones of those who died down there.'

'Duly noted Natasha. Now, if I might continue?'

'Whoever it behind this, they had high enough clearance to get into personnel files, and enough skill to hack their way into the classified stuff.'

'Which means what, exactly?'

Something in Fury's manner, evasive even for him had the hairs on the back of Tony's neck raised. Whatever was coming, it wasn't good.

'I'm sorry, Loki. They took everything we have on you.'

'Me? I don't understand?'

'After New York, we set out to gather as much intelligence as we could about the Chitauri, about other possible threats. And about you. When you turned up again, those orders weren't rescinded.'

Fury sighed, rubbing at his eye patch for a second as if it itched. Maybe it did, or maybe it was a rare sign of nerves.

'What that means is we had hours, day of footage of you. Notes from when we questioned you, from when we questioned Thor and the other Asgardians we met. Medical files. Even psyche evaluations.'

Bruce hung his head then. 'They even got into my computer Loki, and took my damn notepad. They got our session notes. I'm so so sorry.'

Loki didn't say anything at first, just starting in disbelief at first Fury and then Bruce. It shouldn't have surprised him, any of them. He might be, no, he WAS a friend now, but when he came to them all those months ago he had still be a threat. The same threat that had tried to wage war upon them all. Of course they had all made reports about him, even Tony had submitted video footage of their time together in the lab. At least to start with.

Beyond the surprise, he saw the brief flash of hurt in Loki's eyes, just for a second before it turned to anger. Anger was healthy, he guessed. He'd be angry too. He half expected Loki to lash out then, to hit someone. Instead, he visibly wrestled his overwrought emotions back into some semblance of order. Yet another thing to add to the list. If he only realised it, Loki had so much to be proud of today. When the god spoke his voice was cool and oddly flattened.

'Why? What do they want with me?'

'That we don't know, but I promise you I have everyone I trust looking into it. In the meantime, I don't want you left alone. If they - whoever they are - are targeting you, I want to know you are protected.'

'I can protect myself.'

But even as he said it, Loki knew it wasn't true - and Tony winced when he saw the realisation hit. When Loki cut and ran, darting out of the room and heading to god know's where, Tony was fast on his heels, closely followed by a still slightly haggard looking Thor.

'Loki, wait!'

Loki didn't wait, but he did slow. He took the stairs to the roof, needing the air and the quiet. Though he didn't ask either of them to leave. Partly in accordance with Fury's orders, mostly because he needed the reminder that he wasn't without friends here.

Stood on the rooftop, Tony pulled Loki into his arms and rested his head on his shoulder so that his mouth lay close to his ear.

'It'll be alright, I promise.'

'Don't make promises you can't keep Tony.'

'I don't. Well, not any more. And never to you.'

Loki squeezed his hand in response. A good sign if ever he saw one. After a moment, Thor came and engulfed them both in a big bear hug, finding himself more comfortable with action than words. The best sign of all, at least in Tony's opinion, was that Loki allowed it.